This film is an intense experience. It is as much a sensory concerto as it is a story with music. The audience isn’t allowed to simply watch the frames go by but rather is immersed in the drama, the feel, the frustration, the fear and the rhapsody which is jazz. Whiplash is like riding a roller coaster for the very first time. It takes the audience by surprise, never really lets up, has unexpected turns and drops and leaves one joyful yet perplexed. One audience member whispered at the end of the credits “I’m exhausted.” He then added “exhilarated too!”
This isn’t the easiest of films to watch as it demands more from the audience than most films. The intensity of the acting by the protagonists/antagonists, Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, reaches right into the audience seats. The music does as well and is really the third main character both as to plot and emotion. I think it would be hard not to feel this music, move with it (as I saw several legs and shoulders moving in the seats in front of me…and in my own seat) and for the audience to realize that they are experiencing art being formed, albeit not in the easiest or prettiest manner.
The film, hard to watch at moments, is both breathtaking and “breath taking”in large measure due to the presence of J.K. Simmons. One of the great actors of our time, known by face if not by name, for a range of roles he solidly owns. From the wise and kindly Dr. Emil Skoda on the original Law and Order to the epitome of evil that is Vernon Schillinger, on Oz, Simmons hits his mark. Here he doubles down and creates a character, a presence actually, that will likely live long in the minds of the audience. From the opening scene, he scares, seduces, repels, moves, outrages and controls not just Miles Teller’s character but the whole of the audience. Channeling both Skoda and Schillinger (ok more Schillinger perhaps), Simmons moves beyond both these and his many other roles and creates a complex monster of a man. He is the ultimate bully. In fact, at first I found his berating of the students, the film is set at a music school in New York City, to be almost too over the top. His use of stereotype attacks, especially the language of gay bullying, starts off feeling forced and awkward in today’s world and seems outdated in today’s America. But, after a while, it works. It still offends but that is exactly what it is supposed to do. Simmons takes a character that should be a caricature and fleshes him out with complexity, hubris and, maybe, humanity. But only maybe. One cannot take one’s eyes off of him whenever Simmons is in the frame. This is a role of a lifetime for an actor that has already seared at least two other characters into our conscience. In a brilliant way, he starts as mythic, then becomes the bully, and then…
Teller also owns his role and stands up, or rather next to, Simmons. He not only inhabits the role but takes on even the physical posture of an unsure, and later quite sure, college freshman especially when on a first date. His range is certain, neither “rushing” nor “dragging.” (The audience will understand that reference). He is right on as the talented, yet not perfectly matured, artist. He is also an actor who really understands facial expression and the use of his eyes to convey emotion, catharsis, anger and relief.
The film, written and directed (like music by a conductor) by Damien Chazelle (previously director of The Last Exorcism Part II which this writer liked a lot) impresses and leaves the audience with work to do during the film and at the end. It was exhausting and worth every moment. I would gladly ride this roller coaster again. Like the music, this is a film watched, heard and felt and one that lingers well once the audience members catch their breath. Visit: http://sonyclassics.com/whiplash/
Get the soundtrack to “Whiplash”