Since its release in 2014, it seems like Whiplash has grown in audiences’ collective estimation. I didn’t get to see it when it was first released, but when I loved 2016’s La La Land, I figured I might as well finally give writer/director Damien Chazelle’s other notable film a shot.
When I first watched the film, I was into it until the car crash scene. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know which scene I am referring to. For me, this scene came out of nowhere and ruined my suspension of disbelief. Up to that point in the film, everything was very believable and true to life. But then out of nowhere comes a vicious car accident where the main character comes out virtually unscathed – he only has a finger splint instead of a full body cast and time spent in the hospital. It’s more than fair to say this scene ruined that viewing experience.
But as time has gone on, I kept hearing people gush about how great this movie is. I felt like I didn’t give it a fair shake and that it needed to be revisited.
So I went back to Whiplash, determined to not let the same scene bug me. Instead, I wanted to focus on what I love about movies: a message delivered visually through characterization. On my second viewing, I was attached to the screen, interested in what was happening, invested in the characters, and the first band practice sequence is one of the best sequences this century, but I still found myself struggling to like the movie.
While I understand the ideas of success being explored, I have a very hard time relating to those ideas. First year college student and drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) is pushed to the absolute limit by his band instructor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who believes he can push his students to become the next Louis Armstrong. But Fletcher’s methods are concurrently physically, mentally, and verbally abusive. He doesn’t care if he needs to fling a chair at a student’s head or reference the fact that their mother left when they were an infant, as long as he gets the results he’s looking for. It’s all without a hint of compassion or remorse.
In a vacuum, I like the ideas Chazelle is exploring. Andrew becomes cold and demeaning to the people in his life – he breaks up with his girlfriend, doesn’t spend the same amount of time with his dad as he used to, and loses his temper easily at a family dinner. And it’s all in the name of advancing his craft by becoming 110% devoted. This is all because of how hard Fletcher is pushing him to improve.
Unfortunately, I just can’t relate to the story. I never had a teacher or a mentor anywhere near the level at which Fletcher operates. My high school basketball coach pushed me to be the best I could, but it was only because he saw potential within me. He was never abusive in any way – he pushed me the way a teacher is supposed to push you. But that’s the closest I’ve ever been to Andrew’s position.
Typically, I don’t fault a movie when I can’t directly relate to the characters. I love The Lord of the Rings but I don’t live in a fantasy world. But with Whiplash, it has more to do with how I wholeheartedly disagree with Andrew’s final choice as a character. Because right when it looks like he’s moved past the trauma Fletcher has caused him, he decides to fully embrace his mentor’s way of thinking. The ending is open-ended, but it seems like Andrew is embracing the mentality of, “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job,” which Fletcher espouses and taught him.
Chazelle focuses on similar ideas in La La Land, his followup to Whiplash, but I think they’re better fleshed out in that film. I just have a hard time getting on board with Andrew’s final decision. It felt like I was being set up to cheer when he finally took down Fletcher at the end, but the rug was pulled out from beneath me in that sense.
I fully accept that this is my personal bias. Maybe I just feel less cheated by La La Land. But I think Whiplash is the type of movie I will always be able to appreciate, but never love.