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Whiplash

Year: 2014
Production Co: Blumhouse Productions
Director: Damien Chazelle
Producer: Jason Blum
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J K Simmons, Paul Reiser

Whiplash is about jazz drums, but it could be about any art form (or sport). The central question at its heart is 'what does it take to be one of the greats?', and the answer contains more urgency, action and movement than a hundred car chase flicks usually manage.

In fact the exhilarating approach taken by writer/director Damien Chazelle in both the storytelling and the on-screen creative aesthetic could make Whiplash a parable about war. When ambitious young jazz drummer Andrew Nyman's (Miles Teller) journey is over he's cried, sweated and bled as much as any soldier.

Chazelle uses music as his narrative device because of his own background, but the backbone of the story is how far a leader is prepared to go to find rare talent, and how far the steward of that talent is prepared to go to realise it.

Although Andrew and his teacher Terrence Fletcher (J K Simmons) barely realise it, they're both reaching for the same goal. Until the final heart-stopping scene (it's not breath-taking – the film's hardly let you take a breath at all), it makes them seem more like an angry wild animal and the prey it's about to tear limb from limb, Fletcher determined to crush Andrew's spirit out at every step.

While practising at the prestigious music school he attends, Andrew catches the eye of legendary jazz teacher Fletcher, who gives him what seems like the chance of a lifetime, offering him the stand-in drum position on the senior jazz band, with a view to take the coveted core position one day.

Andrew figures he's got it made, but during his first session, the thus-far amiable Fletcher reveals his true self and turns into a cinematic villain for the ages – unleashing profanities and insults from inches away and hurling furniture, Full Metal Jacket's Sgt Hartmann transposed from the army to music school.

Every lesson and performance becomes a new and bruising bout of demolition, demoralisation, attack and abuse the likes of which you'd expect from a sadistic prison guard, but the more like a sledgehammer Fletcher becomes, the more determined Andrew becomes not to crack.

It's rare for any film to get everything right – even the ones we routinely see topping 'best ever' lists – but Whiplash comes the closest in a long time and is certainly the film of 2014 so far. From the casting to the shooting style, Chazelle and his performers have come together to make something both beautifully brutal and brutally beautiful.

With the camera wheeling around the band in full flight and whipping back and forth between Andrew and Fletcher – zeroing right into their faces, a drumstick hitting a cymbal or blood pooling under burst blisters – the production design and editing thrust you right into the action. Fletcher might well be screaming at you.

As the foil for such ill-treatment, Teller gives the lighter of the two performers, but the script gives him some wonderful things to do. When he winces, wiping hands that look like they've been boxing or tries to hold back a single tear under Fletcher's torrent, Teller's journey parallel's Andrew's. The role leaves his fratboy comedy past behind and makes you wonder if Teller himself might become one of the greats.

Simmons, by contrast, commands the screen. As Fletcher he's a character rather than a caricature, with motivations and drives that become clear as the story progresses. But it's the delivery of that character that makes him seem like a cross between Darth Vader and a hurricane. His students fall silent when he walks into the room, and with good reason – when the full force of his unorthodox methods explodes forth you'll flinch as much as Andrew does.

Despite a catalogue of inventive insults, Simmons also never lets Fletcher descends into 'funny/angry'. If there's no African slave, Holocaust survivor or mentally ill savant at the 2015 Oscars he has Best Actor written all over him.

And Cazelle is just as fierce. His direction is like a severe weather front, the constraints of the set or position of his actors immaterial to putting you right there under the sledgehammer of abuse, fingers or drumsticks.

Every self-respecting arthouse film comes complete with a roll call of hyperbolic quotes by breathless critics, but all the adjectives you've read about Whiplash that describe high speed, visceral physical reactions and visual brutality are true. It's a rollercoaster, a tour de force and for the first time in a long time, as close to perfect as movies come.

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