“Whiplash” makes a possesion out of percussion

by Andrew Kingsley | 2/1/15 6:05pm

What does possession look like? Does it entail crawling up walls, becoming a vessel for Satan and vomiting up green slime as in “The Exorcist” (1973)? Or is it subtler, with glazed, absent eyes, isolation and monomania? If “The Exorcist” were set at the Juilliard School, the result would be “Whiplash” (2014). Director Damien Chazelle wrote the screenplay to “The Last Exorcism Part II” (2013), and brings his demonic expertise to this compact gem of perfection.

Andrew Niemann (Miles Teller) haunts every scene in the film, possessed by ambition, his drum kit and the devil of band directors — Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) — who demands students sell their souls for greatness. A nervous freshman at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in Manhattan, the nation’s top musical college, Andrew opens the film framed insignificantly at the end of a long hallway, tapping away at a snare drum. He’s a member of the school’s “JV” jazz orchestra, where music plays as an afterthought and success is equated with cafes and nightclubs. In barges Fletcher, the bald, austerely dressed drill sergeant of Shaffer, who sustains himself by emotionally gutting students hopeful to enter his top jazz orchestra. Like the tornado in Oz, Fletcher makes quick work of this uninspired, dreary band, taking only Andrew onto the dazzling, colorful pedestal of Schaffer.

Simmons has surely come a long way from Farmers Insurance commercials .Reveling in vitriolic violence, Simmons delivers his magnum opus and is a shoe-in for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, for which he has already earned a nomination. The film has garnered the nickname “Full Metal Juilliard” due to Simmons’ similar role to the abusive, tyrannical drill instructor in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” (1987). There’s a sadistic pleasure in watching him snap aspirant psyches like twigs with the flick of a wrist or curt one-liners like: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job,” and “Nieman, you earned the part. Alternates, will you clean the blood off my drum set?” We all have a Fletcher lurking deep inside us, rattling its cage of suppression hoping to annihilate an enemy. Just look at Fletcher’s students: all of them mimic his abusive explosiveness, creating a band of dictatorial minions. An anthropomorphization of self-loathing, obsession and insecurity, Fletcher will go down as one of this decade’s most memorable performances.

Enter Andrew into this fray, the new kid with daddy problems who all too willingly submits himself to this torture. A case study in masochism, Andrew descends into madness, physically ravaged by Fletcher’s demands for perfection as his hands spray blood onto his worn drum kit. Gaunt, calloused and with a thousand-yard stare, Andrew becomes possessed by the demon of possible fame, cutting all ties with humanity to become Fletcher’s ideal. A near-fatal car accident before a show is just a flesh wound for Andrew; the strive for perfection does not stop for broken bones. What is so remarkable is the film’s ability to translate the performance anxiety of its star to the audience, as the whole crowd hushes in nervous anticipation for Fletcher to begin with a “5, 6, 7 and...”

Their dance macabre culminates in this year’s best scene, in which Fletcher and Nieman duel to the death at a Lincoln Center performance. A masterpiece in editing, rhythm and lighting, Andrew’s nine-minute drum solo gives new meaning to the term “grand finale.” An exorcism of sorts, Andrew purges himself of his failures, spraying blood and sweat onto the cymbals, as Fletcher, his priest, raises his arms in supplication to the musical rapture of his pupil. The last shot is a close-up of Andrew, filling the frame in ecstasy, no longer that anonymous student drumming away at the end of a hallway.

Rating: 10/10

“Whiplash” is nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing.