Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Bloody Drums

Imagine a suspenseful thriller. What do you picture? Guns and crime? Murder and detectives? Now think of an underdog story. Again, what do you see? Sports or dance, perhaps. Forget all of those things. Replace the guns with trumpets and the crime with a jazz orchestra. Focus the plot around drums. Sound crazy? This is Whiplash.

Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is a young, ambitious drummer. Enrolled at the Shaffer academy of music in New York, he dreams of being a core drummer at the Lincoln Center. When Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor of the Shaffer studio band hears him perform, that dream seems to be one step closer to being a reality. But Fletcher is no Mr-Nice-Guy. Slapping, screaming, and hurling chairs are not out of the ordinary in his practise room. Whiplash shows the twisting relationship of the pair as Neimann gets pushed harder and harder, whilst Fletcher's constant changing attitudes make everything as uncertain as a coin toss. 

Teller's performance really packs a punch

This uncertainty, created by the impeccable encapsulation of Fletcher by Simmons, is exactly where Whiplash draws its power as a thriller from. Simmons makes Fletcher a see-saw, constantly shifting dramatically, but never becoming unlikeable. Even at his most abusive, he manages to convince you his motives are pure before stabbing you in the back. It wonderfully villainous and utterly captivating. It will leave you with trust issues. It takes a truly talented performer to achieve what Simmons has here. Miles Teller is also not to be forgotten. Like his character, he put his own blood into the performance and through his mix of arrogance and ambition, he assists in raising questions about Fletcher's intentions. Together the pair fire off of one another with some of the best chemistry, albeit negative chemistry, of the last year.
Fletcher can get really brassed off
Whiplash dances with its camera and music, the editing jives and swings between shots with immaculate precision and focus. Take for example the first band practise; the band nervously prepare, the camera shooting from instrument to instrument in rapid succession before it focuses on the specifics of Simmons raised hand, the band in soft focus, secondary to the conductor's gestures, and then the room explodes into wonderful music. From then tension, conflict, and suspense are formed with how the camera jumps, or refuses to jump, between instrument and conductor. Sometimes Chazelle lingers or circles around the action, at other points he darts between two focal points like a tennis match. One things for certain, it's editing will get your heart beating harder than percussion laden score.

Whilst Whiplash does not do anything grand like some of the other big films of the year (Birdman and Boyhood), it is a testament to how effective the simple tools of film making can be when applied to their biggest potential. An incredible film, and possibly the best of 2014.

Best bit? A gruellingly long scene in which the three drummers try to match Fletcher's tempo. Blood splatters, drums fly, and sweat drips. Music, man.

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