Pulse-pounding thriller? Whiplash is a character-driven film in a musical setting, not a traditional thriller, yet it is more effective at getting your heart racing than the vast majority of thrillers. The masterful film-making on display by relative newcomer Damien Chazelle is awe-inspiring. This story is populated by two fascinating lead characters and a pace that never relents. The audience comes to truly care about Andrew and his dream of getting there, never expecting the ride to be so tumultuous.
Character embodiment. J.K. Simmons absolutely kills as Fletcher, hence the Academy Award. The rage and passion shown by this character could easily veer into the realm of silly, but Simmons plays it so terrifyingly well that silliness is never an issue. Fletcher probably topped some “Best Villain of 2014” lists even though “villain” is the wrong word for him. Simmons’ performance stole the show, but Miles Teller should not be overlooked. He gives an excellent performance as a kid with huge aspirations and the drive to do anything it takes to achieve his goals. He may be overshadowed by the flash of Simmons, but his performance is too good to be overlooked.
No blockbuster budget necessary. Whiplash was made for a “measly” $3.3 million but the film never feels or looks cheap. The visuals and production design are consistently gorgeous and the sound mix is next-level awesome. There are explosive setpieces, just not in the traditional sense. The musical performances act as the action scenes and they have to be seen to be believed. Each is backed by such huge tension and character drama that each one feels not only essential to the story but absolutely heart-stopping. The pace is electric, helped by the Oscar-winning editing and the flawless sound mixing in these scenes. Even for the musically detached, these scenes (and the whole film for that matter) are riveting.
Morally complex. The two lead characters in the film are so well-realized that each feels like a complete person. Andrew, who will do anything to achieve his dream of drumming greatness, frustrates the audience with his unrelenting passion and the torture he inflicts on himself in its pursuit. Fletcher, the film's antagonist whose deeds are outwardly terrible and cruel, still has motivations that come from a real place.