I’ve seen Whiplash three maybe four times and my thoughts on the film evolve each time. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is my belief that it’s indeed one of the best films of the decade.
You ever just watch something and after it’s over you just sit there, taking in everything you just saw? Kind of like eating chocolate mousse cake and not swallowing it just so you don’t forget the taste too soon, so you just let the cake sit in your mouth and take in all of it for as long as it’s willing to last? That’s how I felt the first time I saw Whiplash. When you think of films with such little star presence, you hardly anticipate such results.
Now we could describe Whiplash as a spectacle because of the profound cinematography, stellar performances, brilliant directing & the general energy that it carries through for 107 minutes. What however qualifies it as a masterpiece, in my opinion, is the last 9 minutes.
Notable themes in the film are emotional abuse, control, trauma, and all that other sad shit. We see that play out through the entire film between Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons) and Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) and Terrence and the rest of the class. Terrence establishes dominance from the opening scene when he walks in on Andrew playing the drums.
Terrence: Do you know who I am?
Andrew: Yes, sir.
Terrence: So, you know I’m looking for player?
Andrew: Yes sir
Terrence: Then why did you stop playing?
Andrew drums for twelve seconds, uninterrupted.
Terrence: Did I ask you to start playing again?
Andrew stutters, apologizes.
Terrence: I asked why you stopped playing and your version of an answer was to turn into a windup monkey.
Not long after that, Terrence meets Andrew after class and feeds him with a little encouragement, the kind that makes you saunter into class, never expecting your teacher to hurl a chair at you because your drumming was ‘not quite his tempo.’
This soon becomes Andrew’s normal. Like the rest of the class, he’s accepted the abuse as a necessary evil of sorts. When Andrew forgets his drumsticks and rushes to get them, he gets in a ghastly car accident, car flips upside down, Andrew staggers out, blood rushing from the left side of his head, probably concussed and the first thing he says is “I gotta get my sticks.”
All this time Andrew probably thinks he’s doing all of this for himself. I mean he wants to be the world’s greatest drummer—he dumped his girlfriend for this shit. Slowly, however, the lines between Andrews trying to be the best and trying to prove a point to Terrence start to blur. What Andrew doesn’t realize is that his purpose gradually shifts from being the best to prove a point to Terrence. This is evident after Andrew gets expelled from the school and is finally ‘free’. He sees Terrence, recently fired, playing at a bar and walks right in. They sit and have a chat (where Terrence establishes that he is a complete sociopath by the way, in case you were in doubt). After this, Terrence tells him he’ll be playing a show and his current drummer is “not cutting it”, offering him a spot in his band—without actually saying the words. Now Andrew can easily walk away from this, however as it turns out, Andrew has somehow convinced himself that walking away from Terrence is walking away from drumming, from his goals and dreams, because in his head Terrence sort of represents the challenge he needs to surmount to get to his desired point. The fact that Andrew still feels the need to prove himself is instrumental in understanding that at this point, Terrence is deep in Andrew’s head.
In the final scene, showtime, Andrew shows up, and turns out Terrence has set the whole thing up to embarrass Andrew for getting him fired. When Andrew is made aware of this, he walks off the stage…and then he returns. Two words—Rent. Free. This might be considered empowering to a lot of people, Andrew refusing for his last act to be a show of shame, getting back on stage to prove himself, middle finger to Terrence, right? Uh no. Think of it like a breakup—you’re not with that person anymore, you start flooding your socials with pictures of yourself with a rehearsed smile or with someone else, showing them that you’re fine without them. Nobody who does that is actually happy without their ex and hasn’t experienced the liberation they so desperately want to prove they have. Terrence is the ex that Andrew thinks he’s over. So, Andrew walks back on stage to drum some more, but this time, he’s calling the shots, at least that’s what he believes, however, what is actually happening is him showing Terrence how well he does without him. The paradox of Andrew thinking he’s in control, even mouthing a “F— You” to Terrence, while actively seeking his validation tells us that Terrence has established a level of control to a point that he embodies an aspect of Andrew’s purpose. Almost as if, if Andrew can impress him, he has gotten to where he needs to be. We see the dynamic we saw at the opening scene play out again at the closing scene with Andrew trying hard to impress Terrence.
In the end, nothing ever really changes.