It’s pretty rare that we experience a movie with a singular narrative, devoid of subplots and ancillary characters. Screenwriting generally involves an intricate layering of characters and stories, all with their own motivations and narrative arcs that unfold throughout the film’s running time. Whiplash is that rare film that excises the outer rings of story and focuses on one thing and one thing alone: the price of excellence.
There are two main performances in the film, the student (Miles Teller) and the teacher (J.K. Simmons), both of which are exceptional. This plays into the wall-eye vision of the film, utilizing a bare-bones number of characters. It is protagonist versus antagonist in the truest form. The student only wishes to be great; to be the greatest jazz drummer of all time. The teacher wishes to push the student to a level beyond what he feels is “greatness”; to transcendence.
In noting the myopic scope of the film, it is worth paying attention not only to the narrative focus but also the aesthetic focus. Writer/Director Damien Chazelle employs an amplified single plane of focus throughout the film that aids the theme. This means that you may notice several scenes where a character or an object, be it in the foreground or the background, will be in extreme focus while the opposite plane will be completely blurred. In essence, you will notice the world around the character or object but you can only clearly see the object in focus. Much like the main characters, your mind can only focus on one single thing. This aesthetic, which usually goes unnoticed but still affects the unconscious viewing experience, is another component that adds to the overall composition, and it is a pretty impressive feat. I love when the aesthetic of the film serves the text. It is pretty rare these days.
I realize I’m sounding a bit textual and theoretical here, but I still feel it is worth noting in case you watch the film a second time.
Anywho……I also think it’s worth noting how compelling this story is because of these combined elements, and what an interesting experiment it is to compare this movie to the average film viewing experience. The film has a moderately short running time (107 minutes) yet it tells a complete story and contains compelling subject matter despite telling only one story and featuring only two main characters. Think of how many films you’ve seen with a similar running time, or those that run longer. These films are often bogged down with expository scenes and peripheral characters and subplots that generally derail the overall product. Whiplash features none of these elements, preferring to strip the conventional film form down to its necessities. No filler.
I think it goes without saying that the music is top-notch. I think even if you don’t enjoy jazz you will get a better sense of the great artistry of this musical genre.
For my buck, the most interesting aspect of the film is the thematic outcome of the story. The narrative begs the questions “How far will you go to achieve greatness? What price are you willing to pay?” I think the best part is that the film does not answer these questions, but instead asks “Is it worth it?” The characters perform their duties in the philosophical debate, but the film ambiguously displays the results, instead leaving the outcome up to each viewer. There are few scenes of exposition, outside of two scenes that explain character motivation that are placed at pivotal times during the film. The climax is one of the most exhilarating scenes you will ever see in film, and yet barely a word is spoken.
I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to watch a film build tension and character to an absolute crescendo and then allow it to unfold in a series of images that speak louder than any monologue or fight or argument could ever achieve. This film is an exercise in simplicity that achieves a level of complexity few films ever attain.