Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is an interesting film, not so much for what it has to say but for how it says it. It’s a film that enters in a post-Spring Breakers, Bling Ring, and Wolf of Wall Street landscape, where the toxic artifices of the American Dream have been deconstructed and exposed. Chazelle’s film, despite its central sadomasochistic relationship, is perhaps a bit sunnier about our culture’s ability to achieve success – hard work might be all that it takes. Yet there’s a moral ambiguity to Whiplash that’s both exciting and questionable: as an audience are we taking pleasure in our lead character’s emotional and physical degradation? Is this the American Dream?
Andrew (Miles Teller) is a drummer enrolled in one of New York’s most prestigious music programs. Living in a meager apartment, the young man finds himself leading a fairly isolated life in the city. After practicing with a b-team troupe, the omnipresent Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) takes the reigns, offering Andrew a spot in the school’s most rigorous jazz ensemble. Andrew is noticeably gleeful about the opportunity until he realizes the lengths in which Fletcher will abuse his students to get the best out of them.
Andrew and Fletcher’s relationship is, surprisingly, not all too different from Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jamie Bell’s relationship in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. The submissive (Andrew) and dominant (Fletcher) feed into each other’s desires, with Andrew aspiring to be an all-time great drummer, whereas Fletcher looks to realize his students’ potential. Fletcher’s violent methods are dubious at best, where he exploits Andrew’s initial goodwill – a side conversation that Fletcher has with Andrew about his upbringing serves as ammunition for Fletcher to humiliate his student. But he gets results and Andrew makes great strides to achieving his dream to be a world-class drummer. Is Fletcher justified? It’s the great moral quandary of the film,
It wouldn’t be so questionable if the film weren’t so terribly exciting. From Chazelle’s direction to Tom Cross’ unbelievable editing (this is the best edited film of 2014), Whiplash is probably the most thrilling film one can make about an emotionally and physically abused musician. It’s not as if Chazelle doesn’t explore the physical or mental deterioration of his subject – Andrew lays bandage upon bandage on his palm yet the blood keeps on pouring. But the film is so incredibly invested in its plot, progressing so seamlessly and with genuine fervor. Whiplash is a film that is genuinely unpredictable and that’s not an achievement to take lightly.
Yet as the film builds to its conclusion, it’s difficult to place where Chazelle’s moral obligations lie. Is he validating Fletcher’s abusiveness? The picture’s conclusion doesn’t so much suggest it as it does reaffirm that Chazelle values the Fletcher’s teachings. In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, R. Lee Ermey’s Sergeant Hartman broke his soldiers into becoming killing machines, with the effect working on all but one recruit, Vincent D'Onofrio’s Private Pyle, who eventually murders the drill instructor and takes his own life. J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher similarly deals with the suicide of one of his students. Certainly the success of one does not validate the emotional abuse of others, does it? As I’m listening to Buddy Rich, I’ll say that Chazelle makes a persuasive case.