Forget everything you know about J.K. Simmons, the underappreciated character actor has made his career playing affable father figures --most notably as the patriarch in the 2007 indie hit Juno. His turn in Whiplash is a brilliant reversal, one that earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
This well-paced, smartly-written and incredibly intense drama tells the story of a young jazz percussionist struggling to become one of the greats who meets his match in Simmons’ Fletcher, an insanely ferocious professor and conductor. The film charts the ups and downs of a kid obsessed with determination and persistence; its themes will read true not only for jazz-lovers and musicians but also for all people pursuing their passion, hell-bent on success.
Whiplash is the perfect vehicle for its two stars and features an excellent Miles Teller in a star-making role. Keep an eye on this kid; he’s going places. The 27-year-old actor broke out with 2010’s Rabbit Hole and since then has been stealing scenes as Peter in Divergent and other films like 21 and Over and That Awkward Moment. But the real indication of this actor’s talent came from the under-the-radar book adaptation The Spectacular Now. Teller glowed there as a flawed alcoholic teen and Whiplash allows him to glow again.
Teller nails the subtleties of the aspiring drummer persona who demonstrates a range of emotions throughout the film, without ever taking the easy way out and overacting. Instead of sobbing hysterically after a tirade from the spectacularly terrifying Simmons, he shows an understated internalization of defeat on his face. On a first date, instead of chuckling nervously, he displays a perfectly delicate expression.
The story may sound simple, but I haven’t seen such an intense and gripping film since last year’s glorious suspense-driven Captain Phillips. The comparative experience of exiting both theaters so shaken up from the stressful and intense viewings speaks volumes about the effect Whiplash will inevitably have on all who see it.
J.K. Simmons is the reason Whiplash succeeds. He berates, belittles, humiliates, and throws chairs in an unnerving tour-de-force performance as Fletcher, the elite conductor set on rooting out a new legend through his brutal techniques. However, he never loses the humanity in his role. Teller’s Andrew is not righteous and Simmons’ Fletcher is not evil. The characters in the film have dimension, and Simmons, in his tight black shirt and furiously profane motor-mouth, admirably maintains it.
Although this drumming drama relies less on plot and more on acting, this does not mean Damien Chazelle, a novice filmmaker, skimps on the script or directing. A great minimalistic plot splendidly achieves its purpose of highlighting its stars while at the same time producing a fantastically stylish and intense creation. Whiplash is one of the best movies you will see this year.
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