*** 1/2 out of ****
With apologies to the high-quality Foxcatcher, the best film of the 2014 New Orleans Film Festival is Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash.
On the surface, the film’s plot sounds a little like Full Metal Jacket Goes to Jazz Band. An ambitious pupil (Miles Teller) at a prestigious New York conservatory sets his sights on being a great drummer. His teacher (J.K. Simmons) is the music teacher equivalent of a coach like Bobby Knight. Simmons tells the story of how jazz legend Charlie Parker had a cymbal thrown at his head when he messed up a solo. As the story goes, Parker went home and practiced harder because he never wanted to be embarrassed like that again, which led to him becoming arguably the greatest jazz musician of all time.
Simmons throws things, slaps people in the face, and delivers the funniest collection of cruel put-downs since...R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. The shifting power dynamics between Simmons and Teller are riveting. It’s a fascinating study of a dysfunctional, abusive relationship.
Chazelle and Simmons are also insightful about the nature of bullying. Bullies are never unceasing lunatics. They turn on the charm when it suits them and abruptly shift into villain mode to keep their victims emotionally unbalanced, forever afraid as to when the next attack will come. Teller sees glimpses of Simmons treating other people with affection and respect and desperately chases his teacher’s esteem, which only seems to earn him more scorn (Simmons says the most harmful words any teacher can ever utter are “Good job”).
There’s not much plot here, just a battle of wills told in a dynamic visual style by Chazelle (good luck to him on whatever film he follows this with). It’s a rare movie where you are never 100% sure how it’s going to end. An inspirational sports movie ending? A Black Swan meltdown? A lesson on the costs of chasing greatness? All of these seem to be in play as the film progresses.
The veteran character actor Simmons (Oz, Law & Order, Spider Man) is certainly deserving of, at the very least, a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Teller, who was strong in last year’s The Spectacular Now, continues to show great promise as an actor.
is scheduled to open in New Orleans theaters on November 14th. It’s one of the best films of the year - definitely see it.