Monday, December 8, 2014

WHIPLASH wields strong character work to become one of the year's best films

I've seen a number of movies lately but have fallen behind on blogging about them. This week marks my concerted effort to catch up on putting down my thoughts about some of this year's best films, starting today with WHIPLASH.

When I was growing up, it wasn't unusual for a number of the smaller Oscar contenders to not see much of a release in my hometown until after the Oscar nominations. By that point, the critical narrative had usually taken hold and had been reinforced by multiple "Best of" lists touting that year's biggest features. You can't blame critics for making noise to ensure a good film didn't get overlooked, but that same environment also is what can foster a backlash. I have this theory that one is more prone to become a disciple for a film when they're allowed to discover it ahead of the curve. There's nothing like being blindsided by a fantastic film that hasn't yet become a large part of the conversation.

But when you're on the other end of that scenario - when those disciples are the ones telling you again and again that this movie is perhaps the greatest film in several years, one that will be studied for ages - you probably walk in with a different attitude. Surely you're hoping it'll live up to the hype, but it's possibly even more likely your disposition can be summed up with two words: "Prove it."

I offer this preamble to my WHIPLASH review because I fear that this could be the film that gets tagged as being "overhyped" by late-comers. For my money, it's one of the best films of the year, capped off with a fantastic performance by J.K. Simmons as a band conductor at one of the best schools in the country. But it's also a very small-scale movie. Though there were turns in the story that came as a gut punch to me, it's much more about character than plot. Any writer seeking to learn from strong character writing (and that should be all of you) really would benefit from studying this film. Don't walk into this movie with the misconception that a film needs to be an epic in order to be one of the year's best.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a new student at the Shaffer Conservatory. Our first glimpse of him comes as he practices the drums. His work briefly catches the eye of Simmons's Fletcher. Fletcher is an imposing figure and it's clear that when he asks Andrew to show him another piece, it could be a big moment for Andrew. A few measures later, Fletcher walks out mid-performance, not even bothering to say goodbye to the young student.

But soon Andrew ends up as a drum alternate in Fletcher's jazz band, and in the first practice scene, we see just how cruel a taskmaster Fletcher can be. His keen ear detects someone out of tune and he first berates the whole band before honing in laser-like to berate the woodwind section. His wrath becomes focused on one student in particular, who first denies being out of tune and then under continued interrogation cracks and admits it. Fletcher has had enough of this boy's screw-ups and throws him out of the band.

Once the kid is gone, Fletcher confesses to the ground that that student wasn't the one out of tune, "but he didn't know the difference. And that's just as bad."

Fletcher berates, intimidates and humiliates his students on a regular basis. When three candidates for the top drum spot each fail to perform a piece to his satisfaction, he keeps them there for hours and hours, auditioning in succession. Each performer gets but a scant few seconds before Fletcher stops them and let's loose a tirade about how pathetic their work is. They keep drilling again and again until they're all ready to break down. Their fingers are literally bleeding, they've been practicing so hard, in a sequence that makes the audience almost want to drop in empathetic exhaustion with him. Eventually Andrew is the one who earns the coveted spot.  (And it should be said that Teller appears to have some serious chops as a drummer.)

At times, Fletcher seems to be as close to pure evil as any character J.K. Simmons has ever played, and that's saying something considering he's played murderous Nazi bastards at least twice! But one of the film's sly-est moves is that now and then we get a small hint that there's perhaps a tiny bit of compassion behind him. A late phone call unnerves him in one scene, giving a tiny crack in Fletcher's armor. As Andrew attempts to confront him, he's rebuffed with an angry "not now!" that feels far less controlled than Fletcher's usual outbursts. The next day in practice, an unusually sedate Fletcher speaks of a young student he had who showed a lot of promise, saying that the man was killed in a car accident the day before.

It's as shaken as we've ever seen him and movie formula would mark this as the moment that hints at a more likable side. It's reinforced by a short exchange we see between Fletcher and a former student, who greets him warmly. Fletcher shows some familiarity with the man's daughter, and audiences would be forgiven for assuming this might be the turning point into a story about how Fletcher is deep down a good guy, that he just pushes his students hard because he cares.

I'm sure you can chart that particular storyline. Likely something would happen between Andrew and Fletcher to force Fletcher to show the young man some compassion. Perhaps Andrew quits and Fletcher shows up at his apartment door, telling him he's one of the best he's ever seen and that everything he did was because he cared about Andrew. Maybe they even have a heart-to-heart over a milkshake, where Fletcher can reveal some vulnerable secret and both men form a life-long bond that ensures Andrew will always look back on Fletcher as the greatest teacher he had, both in music and in life.

Uh, yeah. That's expressly NOT the movie we get. I'm going to discuss the rest of the film in fairly broad strokes so as not to ruin anything, but if you have any desire to stay utterly unspoiled, get out now.

There's a part of me that suspects we're deliberately fed those cliches to trick us into letting our guard down so that the third act can blindside us. There are moments where it appears things might play out as I suggested above. Fletcher even discusses his teaching philosophy, saying "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job.'" He believes that when mediocrity is coddled with obligatory praise, the artist stops trying to push themselves. He relates a story about Charlie Parker and how a dissatisfied band leader once threw a chair at Parker for a comparatively minor mistake. Fletcher points out that Charlie never made that mistake again and having to learn that lesson pushed him to become one of the greatest jazz legends who ever lived. Without that motivation, he might never have done it.

It's a very revealing speech for Fletcher's character, just one of many excellent character bits. Simmons inhabits this character so fully that he absolutely should be nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, and right now he'd be my pick to win.

I don't want to reveal too much about the third act, except to say that even as Andrew lets his guard down, the audience is probably screaming at him to run like hell. Removed from the situation, that's an easy call to make, but Teller makes it understandable that Andrew's trusting nature makes him easy prey. Deep down he not only wants to believe the best of Fletcher, but he craves his respect and approval too. Teller - whom I also loved in The Spectacular Now - also does good work here, by the way.

All I'll really say about the final act of WHIPLASH is that when Fletcher is given occasion to say "How fucking stupid do you think I am?" my blood ran cold.  If you've ever had a teacher or a mentor who appeared to be composed mainly of pure malevolence, yours will too.

WHIPLASH is one of the best films I've seen this year from a purely character standpoint. It's a small, seemingly simple story, but boy does it pack a punch.

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