"whiplash, noun: 1. the lash of a whip; 2. something resembling a blow from a whip; 3. injury resulting from a sudden sharp whipping movement of the neck and head (as of a person in a vehicle that is struck from the rear by another vehicle)." This is how Merriam-Webster defines the word that gives American director Damien Chazelle's second feature its title. And it's not by accident that the film, whose plot gravitates around Hank Levy's jazz standard of the same name in a diabolical time signature that seems to be hell to play for a drummer, embraces all the possible definitions of the word.
Whiplash is what Andrew Neiman (an intense Miles Teller), a student at New York's (fictional) Shaffer Conservatory, gets from trying to deal at the same time with a condescending, uncomprehending family that doesn't get what he's aiming for, and the terrifyingly demanding drill-instructor teacher Terence Fletcher (a staggering J. K. Simmons), whose overt psychological manipulation and sadism pushes Andrew to breaking point. And it's amplified by the make-or-break mindset into which Andrew cages itself, in what is essentially a coming-of-age tale pushed into the realm of obsession, with all the heightened emotions of wanting to define, push and prove yourself.
Swerving between an ineffectual father (Paul Reiser) who seems to not understand his ambition and a terrorizing "drill drill drill" paternal figure who seems to have recognized it and won't stop at nothing to pull it out, Andrew gets whiplash so hard he loses track of what it is he is and wants to do. And the heart of Mr. Chazelle's film - expanded from his short of the same title - is precisely in that yearning, that painful realization when you're a teenager that the world is not your oyster and is not welcoming you with open arms. It's the tale of a young man that has to navigate between the devil and the deep blue sea, and who realises that either way there will be much lost even when he wins.
That Mr. Chazelle tells his story through a borderline psychotic obsession with music, superbly edited by Tom Cross to the rhythm of the jazz pieces that Andrew learns and plays, is the first of the key twists that lift this film above the standard contemporary coming-of-age American indie (and there are quite a lot of those, to be sure). The other is in giving Mr. Simmons a career-defining role that the veteran character actor grabs onto and runs with all the way for an unstoppable touchdown, forcing everyone else to work at his level - and also pulling a career-best performance from the as yet under-utilized Mr. Teller.
It's a bravura performance that embraces the complexity of a character that could very easily be reduced to pure pointless villainy, but becomes instead a soul as damaged and obsessed as Andrew seems to be on track to become. And that complexity is also reflected in the film's construction in a crescendo of blood, sweat and tears, seen from within the "one-track-mind" bubble of a young man looking to understand and accept who he is.
The viewer, like Andrew, is carried by the constant up-and-downs of the emotional rollercoaster that Mr. Chazelle slyly sets up, allowing you to overlook the more predictable or expected plot developments - after all, Whiplash does trace a conventional narrative arc, even if it does so in a less obvious, more roundabout way. But Andrew is not the only one getting whiplash from this propulsive film - the viewer does too. And, even if only for Mr. Simmons' extraordinary performance, it's going to stick with you a while.
Cast Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell
Director and screenwriter Damien Chazelle; cinematographer Sharone Meir (colour, widescreen); composer Justin Hurwitz; designer Melanie Paizis-Jones; costumes Lisa Norcia; editor Tom Cross; producers Jason Blum, Helene Estabrook, Michael Litvak and David Lancaster; production companies Bold Films, Blumhouse Productions and Right of Way Films
Screened October 31st 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 9, Lisbon (distributor advance screening)