By Ethan Sapienza
It’s entirely possible that I saw “Whiplash” too late. It burst out of Sundance, wowing audiences with its loud, unexpectedly menacing story. The film only picked up more steam by playing at the New York Film Festival later in the year. By the time I was able to catch it in theaters, it had garnered five Academy Award nominations and was being called (at least by one or two) a masterpiece.
My expectations were fairly high then, but the cinematic experience I had was more akin to a daintily, awkward voice crack than some grand crescendo. I left the theater feeling dramatically underwhelmed, expecting some life altering film that instead was tensely confused. I don’t mean to say that “Whiplash” was terrible by any means, but it was far from some essential piece of viewing, particularly in a loaded 12 months featuring “A Most Violent Year,” “Birdman” and “Boyhood.”
What baffles me more than anything is the film’s star, Miles Teller. There is something about Teller that has always vexed me, where his own need to assert classical masculinity pokes through his performances. His tendency to store photos of his muscular back on his phone and overuse the word “bro” in real life hasn’t helped this conception.
His role as Andrew requires no such virile dominance; in fact it calls for antisocial, nearly sociopathic behavior. Nevertheless, Teller’s assertive, braggadocious swagger thwarts his character’s actions, like when Andrew is racing to a performance, late as he was forced to retrieve his drumsticks. He drives ferociously while barking on a phone pleading for the band to wait. Suddenly, a truck smashes into the side of his car.
The hit is shocking, certainly, and provides for a sudden jolt, but Teller’s climb from the wreckage and battered run to the performance center is nearly comical. It’s supposed to be a stomach turning exemplification of Andrew’s toxic career as a musician, but is totally unbelievable given both the absurd nature of the situation and the idea that Teller’s drive to nurture the ideal, carefree image of cultivated manly excellence would do something so extreme. His performance undermines the film in ways that are unforgivable, a tremendous example of miscasting.
JK Simmons plays Andrew’s demanding teacher Fletcher, the fuel for the aforementioned toxicity. Simmons is fully deserving of his Oscar, as he is the only reason “Whiplash” ever achieves moment of honest quality. His scenes brim with exuberance, where Fletcher’s venomous assurance and bravado are utterly captivating. His insults are both unsettling and amusing in their over the top, imaginative nature. Simmons is wholly unpredictable. Muscles tighten when he enters the screen, giving his presence a visceral, anticipatory experience that is difficult to capture in words.
As a former drummer who had a teacher that inspired such self-loathing and discipline, Simmons’s performance takes on a whole new level of poignancy. The desire to prove one’s worth in such a dynamic, as a form of protestation and need for approval, is carnal and horrifying. My relation to the film only made Simmons’s absence more noticeable, as his lack in screen time coincided with “Whiplash” revealing its rambling structure. It ambles from scene to scene, throwing out underdeveloped relationships with a father and a girlfriend, lazily trying to further the plot and Andrew’s character development.
The writer-director Damien Chazelle has an unrefined, incoherent perception on how to achieve his final high note, which I must admit is quite excellent. His most inspired energies go into occasional instances of timely, staccato editing. Yet in between Simmons’s great performance and the final solo, “Whiplash” does nothing but drag behind the pace.
Ethan Sapienza is a Highlighter Staff Columnist. Email him at email@example.com