Whiplash

Drumming well is the best revenge. Or so we learn from being schooled by Whiplash, a dynamic movie duet between Miles Teller as a driven young conservatory jazz drummer and J.K. Simmons as his unreasonably abusive teacher. A bit of a letdown in terms of actual characterization and music appreciation, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s film is at least a thrilling litany of mind games and physical punishments. Like the overlong, unsatisfactorily cathartic drum solo that serves as the movie’s climax, Simmons’ performance is huge and impressive and full of great flare-ups, if also unmoored and eventually spread thin from context-starvation. An obvious movie precedent is R. Lee Ermey’s monstrous and hilarious Marine Corps drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket, but that guy was training killers for a war, whereas this disproportionately sadistic bandleader apparently just can’t stand to imagine the next potential Charlie Parker going unfulfilled. So instead of grandly nihilistic Kubrickian comeuppance at the hands of a pudgy psychotic Vincent D’Onofrio, Chazelle gives him a vaguely codependent disciple who just puts up with his shit. It helps that Teller, too, is great. Whiplash has some outstanding arrangements, but also a disquieting sense — perhaps symptomatic of conservatory culture, and therefore appropriate — that nobody involved can even remember what it’s like to really love the music they’re playing (or, okay, pretending to play). Chazelle clearly brought the jazz love in his earlier film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, and maybe that pigeonhole became his passage to the Sundance factory and then the Black Swan school of hollow overblown creative flagellation. Now he’s graduated, and it’ll be exciting to see, and hear, what he does next.