This is a review I wrote a couple of months ago but never got round to completing. I’ve given it a quick check and am posting it to prevent creating a backlog for myself. Apologies if it is not up to my usual standard.
Whiplash is a film centred around a young talented drummer (Miles Teller) and his elite conductor (J. K. Simmons) with unusual teaching methods. The film takes place almost entirely within rehearsal rooms and musical venues emphasising the strong musical theme of the film, with most of the action centred around the two main characters. Even the scenes outside the musical setting still advance the musical storyline in some way.
The plot of the film is captivating enough to watch but didn’t feel like the focus of Whiplash. The difficulties faced by the main character are all ultimately the same thing, him being too desperate to be the best drummer that he fails to live his life. The struggles he faces with the conductor to become a better drummer, though they create some powerful scenes, don’t actually drive the plot in any way. The plot concludes in a very unsatisfying way, where you feel as if it’s building up to something (and it is) but the film ends without giving the audience any closure. On the one hand, Whiplash feels like it’s meant to be a bittersweet “nobody wins” sort of ending, but it’s also clearly setting up for something (not a sequel) that – for some reason – it doesn’t want to tell the audience. There are a handful of conclusions you could draw, but letting the audience decide for themselves did not feel like a suitable ending to this film.
There are a couple of odd side-plots with one brief family scene and a half-arsed romance plotline. These are both used to show that the main character is forgetting other aspects of his life in order to pursue drumming, and whilst they are effective at doing so they feel somewhat out of place as we’re introduced to half a dozen characters who never appear again, almost justifying the main character’s ignoring them. Whilst these are sort-of resolved in a suitable way, they do feel more like an afterthought in the film.
The film is driven by the powerful scenes between Teller and Simmons with the complicated (and somewhat distressing) student/teacher dynamic being the main focus of Whiplash. Whilst Simmons puts in an excellent performance, his character is somewhat nonsensical and the only real justification for this is that he’s a psychopath. Perhaps that is the only logical explanation for the character, but it also feels like nothing they do has any lasting impact because of it – certainly not on the audience at least. Teller’s character doesn’t have much breadth of emotion, and whilst it seems like they were deliberately written as a melancholy character it never feels like Teller quite does justice to the two emotions he does show.
The cinematography is very musically driven (as you would expect in a film about drumming), and whilst it is on the whole well thought through, it didn’t really enhance my experience in any way. There are a lot of good musical queues (usually drums) but it only works because it’s a film about drumming. By which I mean, though these queues are good, they have to be because the film would make less sense without them. I don’t feel most of these enhanced my experience in any way so much as they served as a constant reminder that Whiplash has drums in it. The camera work was reasonable, there are some nicely done shots, but there are also jumpy shots at the camera cuts from instrument to instrument… because what else would they do whilst the band is playing? Occasionally there are continuous “one-take” shots, but these almost always linger on an odd part of the scene for a few seconds, providing an obvious place to splice two takes together. The artistic shots feel like they’re just there to be artsy and not serve a purpose, they look/sound cool but they don’t show the audience anything new or interesting in Whiplash.
But the most baffling part of Whiplash is why anyone would stay in a band with an emotionally abusive psychopath as their conductor / teacher. A choice which the main character makes several times, and based on the script, so have dozens of other students and professionals. He has no real leverage over these people other than the self-indulgent idea that he is “pushing them to become the best” – the closest I’ve come to that much pressure is when I chose to quit my job. Actually, the most baffling part is why the main character goes through with the last 20 minutes of the film, but it would be a spoiler to say any more.
Whiplash has some very powerful ideas in it, which unfortunately fall down upon closer inspection. I spent a lot of this film feeling awkward and confused, and though I could appreciate the powerful moments within the film, these weren’t enough to make me feel like I had spent my time well. The film does best when it strips away the stakes and plot and just focuses on a student who wants to be the best and his teacher who thinks if he is going to be the best then he should already be the best. I can sort of see why this movie rates highly amongst critics, but I am surprised it rates highly amongst audiences too; this feels like a film made for critics, not for the public.
This is not a feelgood film, and you should definitely be more mentally prepared to watch Whiplash than I was when I watched it. I would only really recommend Whiplash if you enjoy taking a more critical eye to movies, or if you are a huge J. K. Simmons fan, because his performance is probably the best thing about this film.
- Cinematography – 6/10
- Plot – 2/10
- Acting – 6/10
- Script – 7/10
- Enjoyment* – 4/10
OVERALL – 5.0/10
*Enjoyment is a personal measure of how much I enjoyed the film, more of a “gut feeling” than the empirical approach I try to take with the other ratings.