'Whiplash' Is A Bloody Duel Between Miles Teller And J.K. Simmons [Sundance 2014 Review]

The heart of Whiplash is a duel between Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, and the weapon of choice isn't a gun or a knife, but a drum kit. The players' duel is a concept that cuts across musical genres. It can blaze bright in jazz, when players both complement and one-up one another in an effort to push a performance to its limits. The tendency leads to performances like the "drum battles" between Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa.

Andrew, played by Teller, has definitely heard those battles; he idolizes Buddy Rich and wants to be the next great jazz drummer. In his first year at an elite music academy he finds the ne-plus-ultra of instructors: Fletcher (Simmons), a jazz pianist and draconian band conductor. What begins as a simple teacher/student scenario escalates into a full-on battle of wills as Fletcher deploys manipulative tricks to beat Teller into shape as a machine able to perform on cue. The teacher will hurl a chair as quickly as an insult; is he wildly unstable, or a genius?

Whiplash is structured like a jazz tune, with the duel as the central melody out from which spring scenes that attempt to flesh out both characters and inform their tactics. When that melody rises above everything else, the film is unique and viciously energetic; the side notes, however, are wan, and the whole is messy and less driven than either lead character.

At its best the interplay between Teller and Simmons has the tone of a thriller — just how deep do the teacher's machinations go? Does he even think the student has real potential, and can Andrew push through his own uncertainty to achieve the greatness he covets? Fletcher is established as bully who is willing to destroy a young player who isn't totally on the ball, and will do so with devious and mean-spirited mind games, but Andrew quickly demonstrates his ability to match his teacher.

Moments of delicious conflict flower between the two men, as Fletcher ranges far from any sense of classroom decorum. Throughout, energy crackles in arcs between Simmons and Teller as they stare one another down; each of the actors seems just as determined to overpower the other as their characters are. In a different scenario that would be a tiring approach, but here it's spot-on.

Simmons goes pretty far off the range at times, focusing his eyes to laser points at one moment, and dive-bombing a student with incoherent rage the next. His work on Oz showed us how the actor can deploy anger and an imposing silhouette, but Whiplash allows him to find new shades of vicious ferocity. This is exactly the sort of part fans of Simmons will love to see him play.

Teller is tasked with the unenviable task of learning to drum well enough to make a convincing players on screen, and the film opens with a long shot that tracks in on him as Andrew beats out a practice rhythm. He does a great job, and while a double and some selective framing are used to prop up his drumming, Teller needs no help away from the kit. He's wonderfully intense and capable of nuances that highlight Andrew's ambition, and his many personal shortcomings.

The two performances elevate the material just as incredible players can turn a middling tune into a standout. Whiplash is stained by some achingly typical "movie" moments that would undermine the work of lesser actors. One in particular, which acts as a mid-movie climax, really stands out. Detailing the sequence would be a spoiler, but I dare say any viewer will know it when it comes up. There's also a too-heavy reliance on one particular anecdote about Charlie Parker, and a couple of scenes that lay out the film's ideas like cards on a table. The actors are already doing the work to let us know what's important, and laying all the intent bare in dialogue is a bum note.

The film is written and directed by second-time feature director Damien Chazelle, who made Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and also wrote the festival fave Grand Piano, another music-based thriller. He does an admirable job of keeping the film's many musical performances clear and focused, and of preserving some uncertainty about Fletcher's nature. Much of the story that takes place away from musical performance feels comparatively half-hearted, however. We need to know Andrew's true character, but his family interactions and romantic entanglement rarely have the same fiery energy Chazelle allows to flash in the musical sequences. In general, I didn't find the script's attempt to capture the all-consuming drive to succeed nearly as compelling as the work of the people bringing it to life.

Whiplash is a film that, in a different incarnation, might be total niche material. Simmons and Teller, however, turn it into a nasty and memorable battle. Like that one-off concert where musicians just explode on stage, it's not about the material, but how it is played.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10

(Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions picked up the movie last night after its debut; that will likely lead to a release in the States later this year from Sony Pictures Classics.)