"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'."
The obvious temptation with Whiplash is to either tear it to shreds on its own principle that criticism makes you stronger, or to (ironically) praise it, thereby spelling the director's doom. The central question of the film revolves around the cost of success, asking whether genius can be achieved without sacrifice and perseverance (and what your life is worth if you have neither).
Andrew (Miles Teller) is constantly being pushed to (and past) his breaking point by his teacher Mr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and all of the narrative turning points pivot on his decision to keep trying or give up and take the easy way out. These are the elementary psychological coordinates for (death) drive, as Andrew's proximity to his own destruction makes clear; whether this ethical standpoint ought to apply to jazz (does practice really make perfect in a profession where passion takes precedence?) is a question the film never really asks, for better or for worse.
Where writer/director Damien Chazelle's love for music comes into play is the film's unique rhythm. It builds tension quickly to a small peak just after the halfway point, then drops back down and slowly builds back up to a higher peak for its climactic ending. In terms of Vonnegut's famous "Shapes of Stories," this approximately represents the Cinderella story that fascinated him so much, but with the princess's happiness replaced with Andrew's success as a drummer (something which doesn't necessarily entail being happy). The overall structure of the story might not be anything new (it's basically a sports movie in the mold of Miracle), but this distinct narrative tempo gives it a musical ebb and flow that makes it stand out from the rest of the year's more mainstream releases.
Since it's that time of the year, the most obvious thing to note is that Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons both give outstanding performances (Teller is great not merely "for a young actor" but in general). More interesting for me, however, were the editing and sound mixing. The former is a large part of what I liked about the film's rhythm (and there are some great montages particularly during the performances); the latter is easy to forget about but absolutely integral to the success of a movie where music plays a central role (the drums are a character created by the sound department). The cinematography is fairly strong as well, and for the first time in a long time I felt the use of handheld was actually quite tasteful.
The film's not without its problems. Beyond the question of whether its philosophy ought to actually apply to the world of jazz, I'm not at all convinced the girlfriend worked for the story (not because of anything Melissa Benoist does or doesn't do, her character just wasn't written in well enough—the final phone call is particularly perplexing).
Every year I have a difficult time around awards season because of the inevitable gap between what are considered "good movies" and what I actually enjoy watching. A lot of attention is paid to big performances, and I often feel this comes at the expense of other aspects of film I personally find more interesting. In this sense, Whiplash is a case of the best of both worlds. It's a well made film about the struggles of a young man to maintain his drive, and that's exactly the kind of Oscar-bait I'm willing to put my weight behind. A late comer to my favorites of 2014, this movie has now sneaked into my top 10 for the year.
2014: Yearly Releases