Whiplash

Finally got round to watching Whiplash this week, the film which bagged JK Simmons an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor last year. The film was also nominated for Best Picture. Was it deserved?

Whiplash is the tale of fiercely driven jazz student Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller, whose obsessive goal in life is to become a world-class drummer. Neiman attends the (fictional) prestigious Shafer Conservatory in New York, where ambitious souls who want to make it seek the approval of conductor Terence Fletcher (Simmons).

Fletcher, whose harsh teaching methods border on the psychopathic, is admired and feared in equal measure by the students. In Fletcher’s class anything other than perfection is likely to be met with a barrage of humiliating personal abuse or a flying chair. It’s the type of ‘showy’ role Academy members seem to love when they hand out the awards. Nonetheless it’s undeniable that Simmons is utterly convincing and compelling as the cruel bully whose unpredictable fits of rage have both the students in the film and you as the audience on tenterhooks throughout.

  JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher  © Sony Pictures

JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher
© Sony Pictures

It’s interesting to note that, while Simmons went home with an Oscar, the excellent Teller failed to even gain a nomination for his efforts. A key theme of the film is the question of how you balance your personal life with a single-minded pursuit of perfection and success (or, indeed, if such a feat is even possible).  Teller subtly captures this internal conflict and it could be argued his was a far harder, more nuanced portrayal to successfully pull off.

Teller doesn’t look entirely dissimilar to a young Dustin Hoffman. In 1988 Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of an autistic savant in Rain Man. It’s an interesting parallel that Tom Cruise, whose arguable career highlight to date was his evolving portrayal of Hoffman’s younger brother in Rain Man, also failed to receive an Oscar nomination.

  Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman  © Sony Pictures

Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman
© Sony Pictures

Another film Whiplash brings to mind is Shine, the 1996 film for which Geoffrey Rush won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Australian pianist David Helfgott. In that film Helfgott is pushed and bullied by his obsessive father, eventually leading to the young prodigy suffering a mental breakdown. Whiplash ponders the same question – how far should talented students be pushed to enable them to achieve the extraordinary? Where should the line be drawn?

Every time you think you know where the seemingly familiar story in Whiplash is heading, it takes you off in slightly different direction. Its smart script never sags and builds to a satisfying denouement. However, perhaps the film’s biggest achievement is that, even if you think you’re someone who doesn’t like jazz, by the end you’re guaranteed to be tapping your toes with the best of them.

Simon Rose