Posted December 27, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Indie Drama

Whiplash: Wildly Over the Top

Remember Oz? The prison drama that ran on HBO from 1997-2003? Imagine one of the craziest inmates from that show getting a job as a school teacher. That’s what the new film Whiplash is like.

J.K. Simmons, who memorably starred in Oz as inmate Vern Schillinger, virtually reprises that role here. Sadistic Schillinger now is a Music teacher in a school reminiscent of Juilliard, terrorizing his students.

Despite many wonderful aspects, including fine cinematography, great music, and a strong, interesting performance from Miles Teller as the student brutalized the most, Whiplash has so many over-the-top story elements that one is left laughing at it much of the time — at least I was.

The premise is interesting, focusing on the twisted social dynamics whereby crazy but magnetic leaders attract masochistic acolytes who allow themselves to be mistreated for Lord knows what reason. This kind of social dysfunction is of course as old as time, and it’s a wonderful subject for a film.

The problem is that Whiplash sets its story in a 21st-century Manhattan conservatory yet depicts 19th-century forms of abuse. It is so preposterous to think that an elite school in Manhattan today would allow students to get bloodied in the classroom — repeatedly. This causes the tyrannical behavior to be laughable instead of frightening because it is so unrealistic. Whiplash is nothing if not cartoon-ish.

The scenes of classroom abuse are not the only ridiculous element. Absurdity is the name of the game throughout the film. Example: When Teller’s character is making his way to an out-of-town performance, a string of transportation mishaps cause him to be late. He comes unglued because of this, becoming so hysterical at one point that he loses control of his rental car and gets into a serious accident.

His car is hit so badly that it is thrown over. The car lies upside down in the middle of the street, shattered glass everywhere. The film goes quiet. Is the boy dead? No. Gradually we see signs of life. He crawls slowly out of the wreckage, covered in blood. Instead of waiting for an ambulance though, he hurries away, hobbling to the concert hall. He arrives just in the nick of time, limps onstage drenched in blood and begins to play with the band!

They eventually do make him stop but only because his finger is broken so badly that he cannot hold his drumsticks. Try to imagine this: You are watching a jazz band perform at a major concert. The drummer is covered in blood. Perfectly normal, right? You ignore the blood and just listen to the concert. This is the kind of preposterousness that weakens Whiplash over and over.

When my laughter subsided, I began imagining how good this film could have been had it not slipped down the rabbit hole of ludicrousness. If it had stayed within the bounds of reality, it would have been vastly better.

Was writer/director Damien Chazelle conducting a radical experiment, trying to imagine the characters of Oz in professions? Is that why he cast Simmons? Or was he trying to make a realistic drama and lost control of it?

I’m 99% sure it’s the latter. Chazelle, who is not even 30 yet, has only directed one other film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), which showed at some festivals but did not get much commercial distribution, if any. (I have not seen it.) He’s written two other films, including The Last Exorcism, Part 2 (2013). Shuttling back and forth between schlock horror and art cinema — hmm. Certainly unusual.

Perhaps Chazelle was trying to create the next Black Swan (2010), which was also patently unrealistic and had many horror elements. The difference is that Darren Aronofsky‘s The Black Swan was meant to function like a classical ballet, with all the exaggerated drama of that 19th-century art form. The lack of realism had an artistic point, serving as a tribute to the enduring power of ballet. Whiplash is about jazz.

I think Whiplash came off the rails because the young filmmaker is simply not yet in control of his craft. Chazelle is finding his way as an artist, I would say. I hope in his next project he can put together a story that is less ridiculous. If he wants to incorporate elements from horror, he has to figure out why that would be an artistically significant move to make.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.