Pauline Kael once said something along the lines of: “Great movies are rarely perfect movies.” If she were around today, she’d hopefully think that Whiplash is both great and perfect, because after only a few viewings, I’m pretty much convinced that it’s a nearly flawless piece of cinema, something that couldn’t possibly be improved upon, made with exacting care and precision. Yes, it lives inside of its movie-movie world, but that’s one of the things that I look for in captivating cinema; I want to be grabbed by something with almost unnatural force. Writer/director Damien Chazelle made one of the most promising debut features in recent memory, demonstrating commanding technique and a raw understanding of how to ruthlessly move your narrative forward without shortchanging character and emotion and depth. Led by two of the best performances from 2014 by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, Whiplash tells the laser-focused story of a determined college drumming prodigy (Teller) and his psychotically passionate band instructor played with extreme ferocity by J.K. Simmons (channeling R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket), who will stop at nothing in order to bring greatness out of his students. I will spoil no more about the twists and turns that the high-voltage story takes but I will allow this: There’s not a false moment to be had at any point during the two crisp hours that the story unfolds.
To say that Chazelle has been influenced by Full Metal Jacket would be an understatement; Whiplash feels like a war movie, from Simmons’ intensely verbal and vulgar taunts, to the fetishizing of the instruments on display, while the obsessive details of rehearsals and recitals feel wholly authentic. This is clearly a world that Chazelle feels in his bones and he’s made a picture that grabs you from frame one and never lets you go. Sharone Meir’s dynamic and agile cinematography gets intimate and personal with the all of the musical action, bringing the viewer one step closer to the loud and rhythmic world on display. It goes well beyond being just another Mean Teacher Movie because of the way that Chazelle explores the psyches of his stop-at-nothing-to-achieve-greatness characters. Whiplash is about striving for greatness, never losing sight of the task at hand, and how certain people have an almost obsessive desire to always be perfect, no matter what’s being asked of them. And just wait for the absolutely dazzling and utterly impeccable final shot – it’s the best single shot in any film from its calendar year, and that includes Birdman! Not just because of how it looks visually, but for what it suggests thematically and emotionally. It’s a wowser of a cinematic moment.