Begin with a rhythm. With a pulse. With sweat on the snare drum, blood discoloring a set of sticks. Make us feel the mounting speed in close-up after close-up. Hands keeping time, blisters opening as we advance to 2x, 3x, 4x, more. We understand the callouses, we hold our breath and make fists as the rhythm speeds up, our hearts in our throats. The worse the suffering is on screen, the better it becomes. This is the sweet torment of Damien Chazelle's brilliant Whiplash, a jazz drama that crackles with the anxious energy that can only come from true desperation.
In Whiplash, the desperation is of the worst kind: the fear of failure, the quest for perfection, the type of drive that can only happen when someone bases their entire self-worth on success in one venture. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a type a prodigy, a young man used to easy success and starved for greatness. At the fictionalized Shaffer Conservatory of Music, he spends his spare time practicing in rehearsal spaces for hours on end, building callouses and cursing himself instead of making friends. He's arrogant, and like the most arrogant people, plagued with insecurities. When he's moved up in the ranks, he finds himself under the baton of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) a sadistic conductor whose teaching methods can best be summed up as severe emotional and verbal abuse. He screams, throws furniture, belittles his students, and hurls slurs with a terrifying vigor. Under his tutelage, Neiman becomes a raw nerve. He pushes himself harder, he makes himself more abrasive, he fights against his human impulses. He wants this.
It's a stylish tete-a-tete, and for something that largely takes place in a single room, Chazelle has gifted it a frantic, nightmarish tension that comes as much from the editing of its close-ups as from the actors. We don't have time to think about the state of Neiman's education or how an instructor as violent as Fletcher could still have a job, no. Instead, Whiplash regales us with bitter meditations on the nature of greatness. As Neiman and Fletcher battle for genius, the possibility of true success grows dimmer with each passing scene. Their dark, lonely worlds become unbearable for those around them. Neiman advances beyond drive, beyond ambition until the price of his supposed transcendence is laid bare. There are, we learn, "no two words in the English language more harmful than 'Good job,'" according to Fletcher. That fear, that absolute disdain for mediocrity ups the stakes to Black Swan levels of intensity. By the film's climax, it doesn't matter that Chazelle sticks staunchly to realism. You'll be experiencing the music via a fever dream.