Whiplash ****

by Ruben Rosario

Is it worth $10? Yes

He sizes up his prey like a lion hunting for lunch. Terence Fletcher listens to driven, insanely gifted jazz drummer Andrew Neyman bang away, and a guarded smile spreads across the jazz ensemble instructor's face. The kid is hungry, and so is his teacher-to-be – and eventual tormentor.

It's no coincidence that Andrew (Miles Teller), a student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City, is often seen wearing white, whereas his sadistic mentor (J.K. Simmons) predominantly wears black. "Whiplash," after all, is a brilliantly orchestrated clash of opposing forces ultimately seeking the same thing, a ferocious pas de deux that shows the steep uphill climb to achieve greatness is not unlike setting foot in a minefield, a physically and emotionally draining undertaking where only the fittest – and most fortunate – survive.

Andrew, 19 and full of vigor, is shooting for the top, and he knows gaining Fletcher's favor is crucial to get there. It doesn't take long for the teacher to show up at his lower-level class to put him to the test. Fletcher also places other students on his unforgiving cross hairs, and swats them away like bothersome flies. But not Andrew, whom he takes under his wing and brings to his own advanced class, introducing him as a “squeaker.” He then proceeds to make his life a living hell, slapping him when he repeatedly gets a beat wrong, screaming into his face like a drill sergeant. And Andrew, shaken but unfazed, is all too willing to endure the punishment Fletcher dishes out with alarming regularity. Andrew antagonizes his extended family at Thanksgiving dinner after his cousins have the gall to liken their athletic fields with his own achievements, all while Jim (Paul Reiser), his dad, looks on with increasing concern. And what about Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the concession stand employee at a revival house he and his dad frequent? Could she succeed in helping Andrew keep a semblance of normalcy and stability in his life after he starts asking her out?

Writer-director Damien Chazelle has expanded his 18-minute short of the same name into 107 lean minutes, and the 29-year-old filmmaker takes full advantage of the broader canvas, fleshing out Andrew's inner conflict while keeping Fletcher's private life teasingly veiled in secrecy. ("Whiplash" was originally conceived as a feature, and its screenplay was featured in the 2012 Black List of the best unproduced screenplays.) Critics have carped about some of Fletcher's harsh, homophobic bon mots, unprintable here, but it's evident to this reviewer Chazelle is aware of the homoerotic charge coming off Teller and Simmons' sensational, fully committed performances. The protégé wants nothing more than to please his demanding mentor, who in turn derives pleasure from the pain he inflicts. “That's not quite my tempo,” Fletcher keeps telling Andrew when his beat arrives a nanosecond removed from where it should come. And yes, the dungeon master experiences something suspiciously resembling sexual ecstasy when his slave, er, student with Buddy Rich aspirations rises to the challenge, callused hands spilling blood onto the drum set.

Detractors have disparaged the film's lack of realism, the way it fails to capture what the real music world in general – and the alpha male world of jazz music in particular – is actually like. "Whiplash," though, unfolds in a heightened reality that has a casual relationship with the real world, the better it can become the pressure cooker Chazelle intended it to be, and as such, it mirrors its protagonist's own precocious mastery of his craft. As a piece of filmmaking, "Whiplash," which deservedly walked away with the Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, is taut and precise, bolstered by Sharone Meir's muscular camerawork and Tom Cross' razor-sharp editing. It grabs viewers by their lapels and refuses to let up. The central relationship suggests a testosterone-driven Devil Wears Prada, at least before the movie adaptation sanded off and manicured the book's claws. It all leads to what initially appears to be a brutal, and not totally unexpected, twist pitting Andrew against Fletcher. Ah, but Chazelle is not about to let you go that easy, reeling back for a knock-your-socks-off finale that sends you home spent but ineffably elated, the way only the most accomplished virtuoso works can. It's a dazzler.

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