The high concept — boot camp at a music conservatory with J.K. Simmons doing a displaced R. Lee Ermey — gets this pretty far right out of the gate. For about 20 or 30 intense, Simmons-driven minutes, Whiplash feels like one of the best films of the year. It’s the rest of the picture that has a problem, with contrivance piled upon story-driving contrivance so high that the film lacks a believable ground-level view of young drummer Andrew’s (Miles Teller) struggle toward expertise and mastery. Instead, we see a few sessions where he works under the sadistic tutelage of bandleader Terence Fletcher, who teases out his students’ weaknesses in order to pounce on them and humiliate them over what he insists are their shortcomings.
Beyond that, writer-director Damien Chazelle takes the musician’s struggle as a given (whenever he needs a shorthand to underscore his bumptious protagonist’s artistic drive and passion, which is often, he just splashes some Karo blood across the snare heads) and instead spends time scribing redundant verbal recapitulations of the movie’s themes and devising tough-luck obstacles impeding Andrew’s success.
It all sets up a resolution where Andrew, despite his well-deserved ejection from school, gets to demonstrate his chops in concert. What’s missing, partly because Andrew is a lone wolf of a drummer who won’t even permit himself a girlfriend (lest she distract him from his apparently joyless task of making music), is any sense of collaboration, camaraderie, or simple fun in the act of performance. Instead, the film perpetrates a jejune third-act plot twist that points the way to its frenzied climax with an ostentatious, self-aggrandizing drum solo at (of course) Carnegie Hall. I sensed that Chazelle meant to invest the ostensibly happy ending with some ambiguity — just not enough to detract from the fundamental commercial appeal of the screenplay. The dramatic tension in the film is provided by Simmons’ performance, which does the tricky job of suggesting a nurturing artistic impulse as credible impetus for Fletcher’s near-sociopathic behavior in the rehearsal room. His goal is a noble one, and Simmons has created the character as a cruel but sensitive monster, a terrible beast striking out in vain search of beauty.