SPIN is in Park City, Utah, traversing snow and cutting queues to bring you reviews of the next big films (and flops) as they make their Sundance Film Festival 2014 debut.
The opening moments of Whiplash tell you a lot about where Damien Chazelle’s film is headed. First: pitch black with a slow, solitary snare-drum thrum. Then: We’re on the floor of a dank hallway, slowly pushing in on a kid beating his drum kit faster and faster in a rehearsal space that resembles a dungeon. That’s Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a student at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music (Julliard), whose halls are stalked by a jazz teacher as feared as he is revered. Played terrifyingly by J. K. Simmons, band boss Terence Fletcher is looking for the next Charlie Parker.
But he doesn’t want to discover a genius player so much as will him into existence using a combination of psychological torture (he plays wicked head games), physical violence (he’ll hurl a chair at your head to make a point), and verbal abuse (he drops “f—-t” more than Eminem). If Simmons’ bebop drill-sergeant act is heavy-handed at times, it serves to ratchet the tension in huge 360-degree cranks, plus occasionally break it with comedy. But Teller’s journey as Neiman is anything but cartoonish — a nebbish teen who’d rather hang out with his ineffectual single dad (Paul Riser) or a Buddy Rich CD, he’s the perfect candidate for the professor’s abuse.
And that’s what makes the feature so goddamned itchy in the best way: Fletcher is a textbook abuser, and his relationship to the boy is eerily paternal. Despite a couple of too on-the-nose foils (the directionless girlfriend, the quarterback cousin), the action is in the rehearsal room, and every time Fletcher stops the band so Neiman can correct his tempo, the sudden cancellation of that thick, wonderful music is as jarring as the slaps that the man delivers to his charge’s face. Self-hatred is ever balanced against self-importance, and the question is raised again and again, Black Swan-like, as to whether those qualities are a virtue or a curse. Like any good drum solo, Whiplash careens into the unexpected before coming to a jaw-dropping close.