The 52nd annual New York Film Festival kicked off last week with a handful of highly-anticipated movies in the lineup. So far, HuffPost Entertainment discussed David Fincher's "Gone Girl" and David Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars," and now we're raving about "Whiplash," which opened Sundance earlier this year. The film follows Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a young drummer with dreams of becoming a legend, as he's pushed to his limits by a dictatorial music instructor (J.K. Simmons), who uses emotional and physical abuse to tyrannize his students. Loosely based on writer-director Damien Chazelle's experience as a drummer, "Whiplash" has powerful performances that resonate as much as its fantastic music. Still on edge, HuffPost Entertainment editors Matthew Jacobs and Erin Whitney share their thoughts on the tense drama surrounding teacher and student. (There are mild spoilers ahead.)
Whitney: Sometimes when a film is hyped after a premiere at Sundance and you don't get to see it till much later, the appeal tends to wear down. Sadly, I expected this to happen with a film like "Whiplash," but: Wow. It evaded the hype-kill entirely. From the first scene, as a sweat-drenched Andrew tenaciously practices his drumming, to the final moment, I was completely enthralled with this film. Not only is the taut script fantastic, the music incredible, and the performances some of the best of the year, but "Whiplash" takes the trite tale of the tyrannical teacher and the young artist to fresh and invigorating levels.
Teller's performance is undoubtedly one of the strongest elements of the movie, as he pounds away at the drums until blood literally spatters off the vibrating cymbals. Watching Andrew persevere against the terrifying Terence Fletcher (Simmons) is not only heartbreaking, but nerve-wracking. I got so wrapped up in the tension of the story and the rising tempo of the music that at times I found myself holding my breath as Andrew beat against the drums. What was your reaction, Matt?
Jacobs: "Whiplash" is a bright spot in this year's NYFF because it inverts a lot of what might be expected. It's a "teacher" movie that has almost no markings of the purring educators at the center of "Dead Poets Society," "Mr. Holland's Opus" and "To Sir, With Love." It's doubtful that many of Terence Fletcher's pupils write him dewy-eyed letters or stand on desks to recite poetry in his honor. Simmons screams (a lot) and hurls insensitive slurs at his students, all in the name of never saying the words "good job" because that's not, in his view, educational.
Simmons' character is hard to digest. Every time a ray of humanity peeks through, it's quickly bookended with more feverish rage. The character's viciousness is infuriating, but that's also what gives the movie its impact. Andrew is just as much of a perfectionist, and Teller captures an obsessive perseverance that accentuates both drive and loneliness. "I still go to the movies with my dad," he tells a date, in an innocent moment that makes you want to both hug Andrew and shake him for not telling Fletcher to shove it. On top of that, Fletcher's characterization is tough to endure because he never actually teaches, yet everyone still pines to impress him. I understand he shepherds the conservatory's advanced students who don't need as much coddling, but this is still a college setting, and here's an instructor who pits Andrew against two fellow drummers and yells "not my tempo" until one of them gets the piece correct. Fletcher's approach conjures up memories of the ineffective educators we've all suffered through. Even if there's a prestige in being able to perform in Fletcher's band -- and he's sure to emphasize that it's his band -- the movie has an maddening way of making us wish Andrew weren't his disciple. That said, I applaud Chazelle for ultimately permitting that debate to occur. By painting Fletcher as more of a villain than an antihero, the sickening feeling you have while watching him abuse students becomes less palpable by the time the credits roll. It just takes the movie's full 106 minutes to get there.
Whitney: I couldn't have described either character better, Matt. I also sort of love how Fletcher is painted as pure villain instead of antihero since we've become a little too familiar with those in film and television of late. Sometimes it feels good to just fully hate a character whose psychotic obsession for perfection is hazardous, not only to his fellow characters, but to the audience as we watch and writhe in our seats.
Another exciting thing about "Whiplash" is its introduction of a promising new filmmaker. Damien Chazelle's previous writing credits include "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" (which he also directed), "The Last Exorcism Part II" and last year's "Grand Piano," starring Elijah Wood. But "Whiplash" will definitely garner him well-deserved attention. It's interesting to think of "Whiplash" in relation to "Grand Piano," which also tells a story of tenaciously playing an instrument to perfection. Of course, in "Grand Piano" the motivation is the much more literal threat of danger and death (if a pianist, played by Wood, misses a single note, he will be killed on stage). Yet I love that Chazelle has given us two approaches to the concept, the unrealistic thriller and the powerful, relatable story we get with Andrew and Fletcher. I think, with "Whiplash," we can also see where Chazelle's strengths are as a writer -- telling the more humanistic struggle of a passionate and determined young individual and the lengths one will go for their love (as opposed to fear) of music. That's what the film accomplishes best, and by the end we are finally freed from any hatred, any resentment and any frustration felt toward the characters as we -- along with them -- become fully absorbed by the music. Experiencing the film's final minutes, which are some of its best, are what make "Whiplash" truly memorable film.
Jacobs: My only real qualm with the film is compounded by something Simmons revealed at the press conference after our screening at NYFF. He mentioned a scene he shot that defined Fletcher's life outside of his music -- something I felt was necessary to explain the character's impetus beyond "he's a talented perfectionist." In the nixed scene, Simmons said Fletcher is seen in his solitary apartment with a "nicely ambiguous photograph of a woman and a child that, as [he] played the whole movie, were part of [his] backstory -- [his] wife and daughter." Maybe including that moment would have stripped Fletcher of his primary ambiguity, but I found myself unsatisfied with the movie's lingering question.
I'll cede Chazelle his right to seek subtlety in a movie that's loaded with outsized emotions, though. This is, like you say, Erin, just as much a movie about the love of music -- or any passion, really -- as it is a character study of loners whose devotion to their craft cannot be understated. That's a characteristic we can all admire, and I, too, spent much of the movie squirming with anxiety and anger as it unfolds. For a nanosecond as the screen cut to black, I wasn't sure I liked the movie, and then I realized that was just the turbulence talking. I still think some of the third act's specifics may be a tad unrefined, but "Whiplash" provides so much to contemplate and takes us on a wild ride to get there. It's worth the blood, sweat and "single tear" that comes in between.
"Whiplash" opens in limited release Oct. 10.