I Got Whiplash in the Caravan
From the opening moments of the film, Whiplash pulls you in for an adrenaline fueled, heart-pounding, tension-filled, and exhilarating ride that doesn’t let up until the credits are done. Damein Chazelle’s first film showcases a brilliant forte of filmmaking, filled to the brim with intense acting, compelling storytelling, and engaging questions to ponder over even to this day. It isn’t a film that some may take lightly, but it asks the big question in terms of our ability to succeed: where does true greatness come from?
That question is at the heart of Whiplash’s narrative that follows rising freshman Andrew Neyman as he joins the elite studio band at Schaffer, the best musical school in the country. There he encounters Terrence Fletcher, the man that Andrew believes can unlock his true potential and allow him to become one of the best drummers of all time. Fletcher’s methods, however, are unconventional, abrasive, abusive, and downright intense to watch to the point where he is practically torturing his students. Despite this, Andrew is still determined to be the best and pushes himself past his breaking point to try and become something spectacular.
There is so much to love about this movie and upon further rewatches, I learn to appreciate more and more about what Damien Chazelle accomplished. There are three things that make this movie an undeniable masterpiece: the drawn out intensity, J.K. Simmon’s performance, and the overarching questions the movie asks of its audience.
From the opening scene, the film captures your attention to the point where you can’t take your eyes off the screen for one second due to the intensity on screen. Each time Andrew is on the drum set and Fletcher is directing, you can feel the tension boil within your blood as you are literally praying that Andrew doesn’t make a mistake. You want Andrew to succeed and you see the lengths to which he is putting himself through to ensure he is worthy of being the greatest there ever was, and that continually elevates the intensity and stakes of the central conflict.
It’s to this movie’s credit that there isn’t a single scene of action and yet it is the most intense movie I have ever seen. When Andrew messes up, Fletcher verbally abuses him, slaps him, even hurls a chair at him and you’re sitting there with your jaw open and heart racing just praying that Andrew gets out of there with his sanity. You never know when Fletcher is going to snap or for what reason, and that builds tension from the likes never before seen in other films.
J.K. Simmons commands the screen as Fletcher in arguably the strongest performance of his entire career. He is able to balance the ruthlessness of a man hell bent on shaping the greatest musicians no matter the cost, with the subtlety of someone contemplating his life. From the moment that Fletcher enters the room, you know that this is a man who will stop at nothing to ensure greatness. The way Simmons unleashes this character is some of the finest acting I have ever seen. It is such a raw and unhinged performance that holds nothing back and truly makes the audience fearful of him without ever having to come into contact.
Fletcher’s philosophy is hinited at throughout the film and while some look at this film and truly see the brutality and fear he strikes within his students, there is someting to be said about what his character is trying to accomplish through Andrew. As we constantly see Andrew push himself to the point of cutting away everything in his life to focus on drumming, we see the tight grip that Fletcher has on him. That grip on Andrew’s neck is the motivating force that Andrew needs in order to succeed, but it also begs the question of what would happen if that grip was loosened or not there at all. Seeing Chazelle explore that question and concept through Flethcer is absolutely mesmerizing and adds another dimension into an already tight movie.
The movie is fabulously paced and excellently written, clocking in at just an hour and 45 minutes. The story zips along at a breakneck pace akin to the film’s title, but it never makes you feel like you’re missing something or moving along too quickly. The characters speak so naturally and authentically with one another, giving this movie a needed grounded feeling despite its sometimes unbelievable methods. Every reaction and action taken in this movie feels truly palpable, adding to the authenticity of the experience being portrayed on screen.
The film closes in one of the most jaw-dropping finales ever put together in film. The culmination of a student so hell bent on becoming great and his ruthless teacher who will stop at nothing to ensure greatness is a spectacle to watch that will have you holding your breath for 15 minutes straight. Chazelle presents the best type of conclusion that shows the explosion of two powerful forces colliding and illustrating the result of that conflict in such a satisfying way. I will never get over how mesmerizing that experience is.
Chazelle asks many questions of his audience but never cashes in on easy answers. The question of “what makes greatness” is the thoroughline the movie rides upon, but is also hidden in subtlety to make us question our role in shaping the next generation of greats. What makes someone great? Do we pamper ourselves too much? Is our unhappiness with our circumstances due to our contentment earlier in life? Do we become discouraged too easily? What exactly is the line between insanity and genius? All of these questions are asked, and most of them are given the truth filled hard answers that leave room for many audiences to debate to this day.
Whiplash’s crowning achievement is containing such a tightly woven story with dynamic acting and introspection about the human’s desire for greatness in such a short amount of time. This move is a masterpiece on every level, it doesn’t have any flaws to it, and provides something that truly makes us look at ourselves and contemplate. This is why film exists, this is the peak of cinema, this is the crowning achievement of the past decade, and it is undeniably my favorite movie of all time. I don’t think there is anything that can top Whiplash, but you can sure bet that I keep Damien Chazelle on my radar for the rest of my life.
It really says something about a movie if it manages to keep a level of intensity the entire time without any real “action” sequences.
I like how you mentioned the key theme of the movie is what it takes to be great. Having a good group of people around to discuss this theme is pivotal to the movie experience.