Ahoy, squirts! Quint here fresh out of my first official movie at Sundance 2014. I decided to kick things off with Whiplash. Here's what I knew going in: JK Simmons was in it, looking like a pissed off Mister Clean. Miles Teller played the drums. And that's about it.
I love film festivals for this very reason. It reminds me of being a kid and going to movies back in the day when it was the norm to see a film and only know the poster and one trailer. And now I'm going to rob you of a little bit of that exact feeling by talking about the movie! You're welcome.
Miles Teller is Andrew, a shy but determined first year music student, who has a great ambition inside him. He practices drums when everybody else has gone home and in one of these late night sessions he finds himself surprisingly auditioning for the head honcho of the school, a hardass teacher named Terence Fletcher, played by a surprisingly ripped and bald JK Simmons.
Young Andrew is given a shot, but it's soon apparent that this mentor/student relationship is... unconventional, to say the least. Simmons channels R. Lee Ermey as Fletcher. Gunnery Sgt. Hartman and Fletcher have a similar view on life. They are hard because that's the only way to push their wards into greatness. Except in a weird way Fletcher is way less morally righteous than the Full Metal Jacket character I'm comparing him to.
Therein lies the reason this movie stands out. Fletcher has moments of kindness, some glimpses at humanity, but the feeling I got by the end of the movie was that for all the high talk about playing a bastard for the good of his students was all some sort of fake front. I don't think he even deluded himself into believing that lie. At the end of the day he's just a cruel, cruel man. Every act of kindness was intentionally made to make the next wound hurt more.
Simmons gets to go full bore with this character and it's spectacular to watch him unleash. He sinks his teeth into this ambiguous character and shakes it until all that's left is a little bloody cartilage. The man is truly intimidating here and you feel like he'll go way over the edge without much provocation.
Teller plays Andrew interestingly as well. The character starts out sympathetic, but his drive to be one of the greatest there ever was slowly but surely turns him into a self-entitled asshole who alienates the good and real things in his life. Normally this kind of character arc doesn't sit well with me. I don't have to like every character I see in a movie, but I do find that I need to connect with someone or a story doesn't quite hit home for me. A lesser actor could have turned me off of a character like Andrew, but Teller does such a good job making him sympathetic and recognizably human that I found myself feeling sorry for him when he began losing what really mattered in his character's life instead of judging the character for it.
He did something similar with his character in The Spectacular Now, actually. Don't look now, but I think that kid's got talent.
Without delving into spoilers I want to comment on the ambiguity of the overall message of the movie. When the film ends you have to decide if the cruelty Andrew endures was righteous or not and I'm not so sure it's as easy a call as you might believe at first glance.
I can't say much more without giving away the movie, but one of the things that I loved about the movie was that there were no truly good characters (with the exception of Andrew's dad, but I'll get to him in a minute). The two leads are both flawed, they're both high on their own self image and they're both incredibly similar in that they see what they want and they take it, damn whatever cost.
I mentioned Andrew's dad, who is a writer that gave up and became a high school teacher. Paul Reiser plays him (I know, I was psyched, too!) and he's so good here as the gentle soul who has come to accept that he compromised on his dreams. Reiser's own story is one path Andrew could go down. He might not find the greatness he seeks, but he'll be kind, happy, content. The other way lies torture, pain and loneliness, but with the possibility of being a legend.
In a way the movie is a battle for Andrew's soul. With such a strong finish and great leading performances I find little to criticize with this one.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle makes a strong, assured feature directorial debut with this one. I wouldn't be surprised to see him scooped up into the Hollywood machine in the coming years.
Sony picked up the distribution rights to the flick and announced shortly after the first screenings here in Park City, so you'll likely get a shot to check it out. I think it's very worthy of your time and urge you to give it a watch as soon as you can.
Make sure to Follow Me On Twitter as I continue to wade through all the crazy movies (not to mention the snow) at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. I'll be tweeting my immediate thoughts throughout the day... and probably tweeting pictures of snow... give me a break, I'm from Texas, this is exciting for me...