In a year which gave us thrillers about missing persons (Gone Girl), WWII tanks (Fury), prison fights (Starred Up), threatened priests (Calvary), distopian uprisings (Snowpiercer), and a giant lizard fighting Walter White (you get it), you’d probably be surprised to learn that the most intense film didn’t involve any gunshots or explosions. It didn’t have any physical violence at all, unless you really want to nitpick. It was about drumming in a jazz band, and not much else.
Whiplash tells the story of Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a student at [basically Juilliard] who wants to become a great jazz drummer. He’s invited to join a competitive studio band whose conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), believes constant stress is the only path to greatness. If that means throwing chairs, spouting misogynistic insults, or forcing students to play the same three bars until their hands bleed, so be it. It’s like Jiro Dreams of Sushi’s nihilist cousin: where Jiro sees greatness as quiet dedication to a craft, Fletcher sees it as a state of constant panic.
Simmons is incredible in this. But for all the terror his performance brings to the table, the deepest stress comes from the musicianship he demands: the focused silence, honed instincts which could crumble from a second of overthinking, Fury tanks of adrenaline forced through a restrained staccato pinhole. It’s a unique brand of anxiety — like public speaking if you weren’t allowed to pause for air, or sports if there were nothing but free throws — and Teller emotes it all in his insane strive for perfection. He’s as monstrous as Simmons, and despite not being a professional drummer, makes entire story arcs rise and fall and rise again within a single drum solo. There’s no way to talk about Whiplash without using jazz lingo: the whole film is pulsing, electrifying, loose and alive with mechanical precision.
It almost gave me a panic attack, and you should definitely see it.