Sundance 2014 Capsule Review: Whiplash, or The Most Unconventional David Vs. Goliath Story in Years


If Miles Teller doesn’t become a superstar, I’m leaving Earth. At the young age of 26, with less than five roles completed, he’s already become the quintessential man: blowing away critics, fans, and movie lovers everywhere with his charismatic smooth delivery. Last year he carved his place in Hollywood with an incredible performance in The Spectacular Now. Sure, he’s had parts in a few teen comedies aimed for a teen audience, but when the role demands it, he has shown the world he can project maturity with fresh vibrant sincerity. Once again, Teller has commanded the screen with fierce determination in Damien Chazelle’s second feature, Whiplash.

Whiplash follows Andrew Neyman (Teller)  — he’s a freshman in college and wants to be the best jazz drummer at his East Coast music conservatory. Neyman doesn’t have any friends — which is by choice — and the closest he has to a social life is seeing movies with his father (played by Paul Reiser). This is Okay with him because playing the school’s drum set after hours is what stimulates him most; he wants to become a legend and nothing will get in his way. When he’s finally selected as an alternate backup drummer in the school’s prominent band taught by the well-regarded but ruthless music conductor, Terence Fletcher (in a staggering performance by J.K. Simmons), he feels like he’s already on top. But this isn’t a fairytale, and Neyman quickly learns he’s going to have to fight harder, play faster, and challenge the one person he admires most — Fletcher — no matter what the consequences are. 

From the moment Simmons shows up on screen, to the last frame he’s in, Simmons gives one of the most energetic (and quite terrifying) performances of his career. His Terence Fletcher teaches by inflicting fear and emotional pain. Instead of finding what his students are good at, Fletcher sniffs out their weakness and exploits it. To him, this form of teaching will filter out the worst of the best. I can’t remember the last time a film pushed its actors mentally as well as physically, but Whiplash brings the pain as our two leads battle out their differences.

What makes Whiplash so compelling is the war between our two leads — aside from Simmons’ machine gun spray of expletives at his students (and a thrown chair here and there) — there’s not much dialogue exchanged and not a single punch is thrown. These two spill blood (literally) with what they are good at: Neyman beating the drums as hard as he can, and Fletcher screaming in Neyman’s face that he’s not playing the drums good enough. Both want the same thing, but these two in the same room is like watching a tornado meet a volcano. Whiplash is a fierce story about determination, loss, pain, and following your heart no matter how poisonous it can sometimes be.