Attempting to relax during Whiplash's fury and frenzy of music and mania is futile.

'The key is to just relax,' conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, Labor Day) tells nervous music student Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller, Divergent), who has been selected to join the stern Fletcher’s prestigious studio band. Fletcher’s words sound reassuring and full of good intentions; however rarely has a seemingly placating phrase simmered with such ominousness. During every moment in his teacher’s company, relaxation is the last thing on Andrew’s mind.

After Fletcher stumbles upon him practicing his drumming after hours, Andrew is desperate to impress, even more so when an impromptu audition becomes a spot in the New York school’s premier jazz ensemble. His initial accomplishment has immediate consequences, commencing a game not of power but of perfectionism. Each step Andrew makes in his preferred direction is met with devastating derision – designed to push him further, but also detrimental to his well-being. When he earns a starting chair over a colleague, another competitor is brought in to challenge his position. When he makes a mistake, he is humiliated in front of his peers. Andrew gives up all semblance of a normal life, a girlfriend (Melissa Benoist, TV’s Glee) and his humility included, but for both the berating, abrasive mentor and the determined, devoted musician, there is no sacrifice too great to make in the service of success. 

Tension ripples, pressure simmers and all imaginable manifestations of the strain and weight of striving to achieve becomes known in Whiplash – dripping blood from broken hands and oozing sweat from furrowed foreheads among them. In evoking an atmosphere of anxiety, writer/director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) excels, turning an outstanding film into an astonishing one in the process. Remaking his own short of the same name in only his second feature, he turns every instance of Andrew’s experience into a palpable expression of unease, knowing when to flit between flying drumsticks, and when to patiently dwell during the calm before the fiery storm. That Chazelle has also worked in horror, contributing to the script of The Last Exorcism Part II and writing giallo throwback Grand Piano, provides an obvious foundation for his exploration of the psychological terror of fervently chasing a dream.

The on- and off-screen parallels are just as evident, the feature’s instructor and its filmmaker each forcing Andrew past the character’s natural limits. Both seek their version of the ideal, be it a faultless rendition of the titular track, or an exhaustive recreation of the consequences of triumph and the price of rigorousness. 'Are you rushing or dragging?' Fletcher yells as Andrew fails to meet his standards, Chazelle expertly avoiding the gap intimated by this question, as well as the corresponding inability to find the requisite sense of equilibrium. Though never an easy watch, in its deft dance through the gruelling ups and downs of ambition his film hits all the right notes at all the right speeds, creating its own hypnotically percussive refrain of craft and performance.

The director teams up with fellow horror alum Sharone Meir (The Last House on the Left, The Haunting of Molly Hartley) to wrestle images of foreboding and threat onto the screen, the cinematographer leaving no frame untouched by shadow, and no room empty of agitation. Though a sports film structure provides Whiplash with its foundation, complete with rehearsal montages and a journey towards an anticipated performance, the feature’s mastery of minutiae exceeds its standard framework. Visual brooding combines with meticulous cutting, the movie an ode to well-timed and -placed edits by Tom Cross’ (Any Day Now) hands. And, of course, there’s the soundtrack, riveting in its repetition as it builds to a crescendo best described as an immersive aural onslaught.

Whiplash boasts many exceptional elements, primarily the thematic and aesthetic finesse of its examination of the quest to become the best; however within an effort brimming with excellence, it is the duel between Simmons and Teller that lingers. Fans of television’s Oz will be familiar with the veteran character actor’s brand of menace, just as viewers of Rabbit Hole and The Spectacular Now will have glimpsed the rising star’s nuanced arrogance; here, in enlivening a complex adversarial relationship aping father-son issues of the most terrifying kind, neither has been better. Their performances and physicality are as precise and passionate as the drumming sought within the narrative, the mirroring of the feature’s construction and content again inescapable. Its title is telling, for in the film’s thrumming fury and frenzy of music and mania it never has less than a jarring, jolting impact. Attempting to relax is futile.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Director: Damien Chazelle
US, 2014, 106 mins

Release date: 23 October
Distributor: Sony
Rated: MA

Sarah Ward

Tuesday 21 October, 2014

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay