Movie review: Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash is a painful movie to watch, full of verbal and physical abuse. The victims willingly submit and even take on the persona of the victimizer.

Andrew is a new student at Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City. One night the eminent instructor Fletcher walks in on him as he practices. Fletcher then later picks him out of the studio band he plays in to play in Fletcher’s premier studio band. It is an undreamt for honor. Andrew is over the moon.

Fletcher is a narcissistic instructor who hurls a near constant stream of profanity at the band members, who all take it. They are, after all, in the best music school in the country, playing in the best studio band at that school. They all dream of being great musicians. Being great apparently means that they need to suffer abuse from Fletcher. No one thinks of walking out.

Sometimes though, the abused takes on the role of the abuser. If being cursed at and humiliated is acceptable, then it must be acceptable to do it to other people, right? Fletcher has created a toxic environment and set the example for what is acceptable behavior in interactions with others. Andrew soaks this in and then reflects it outwards on others.

Andrew has set his sights on being a star. He condescendingly pushes aside his girlfriend. She would only get in the way of the intense practice he needs to do. He would resent her. She would resent him. Nicole correctly understands that Andrew also sees himself as being better than her: he has a purpose, a higher calling. In contrast, Nicole is still trying to figure out what her major should be.

When Fletcher plays his normal tactics of turning the drummers against each other, Andrew snaps and becomes mini Fletcher, hurling expletives at Fletcher.

Andrew is so eager to please, so eager to be the core drummer in the group that he will do anything. He is even in a serious car accident on the way to an important contest, pulls himself out from underneath the wreckage of the overturned car, and shows up for the contest. Alas, to no avail.

He is thrown out of school, his life and career ruined before it even began. He is approached by a lawyer. Apparently, a protégé of Fletcher’s didn’t die in a car accident like Fletcher said. He hung himself, suffering from depression and anxiety after being a student (read: victim) of Fletcher’s. The lawyer wants Andrew is relate his own experiences, in hopes that Fletcher is fired and no other student has to endure his abuse.

After being kicked out of school, Andrew gives up everything with music and drumming. He is trying to heal when he runs across Fletcher who invites him to be his drummer in an ensemble he has for another (non-school) related concert. Important muckety-mucks will be in the audience who can make or break careers.

Andrew doesn’t run screaming but goes as a lamb to the slaughter. He shows up to play in the concert but the first piece is not included in the music he has. He doesn’t know it and is forced to just play drums. Fletcher approaches him as the band is playing, revealing that he knows it was Andrew who spoke to the lawyer who got him fired.

Andrew leaves in the middle of the concert, defeated and ashamed. He is the worthless piece of @#$% that Fletcher was always saying he was. But then he turns on his heel, goes back on stage, and starts playing a piece that the band knows. He cues them in and Fletcher is left enraged at the coup. The piece is perfect for Andrew, one he has practiced intensely. And it offers that opportunity for an extended drum solo. Andrew redeems himself and takes back control—of the band, of his talent, of his sense of worth—from Fletcher. The victim triumphs over the victimizer.

Whiplash is rather an odd message, and one about victims and victimizers that I am not sure I am comfortable with. The movie hints at the destruction that abusers do but then almost condones it. The message seems to be that the way to overcome the victimizer is to beat him at his own game. To do that, you must stick around to be victimized.

And Fletcher justifies the abuse he dishes out by arguing that no one becomes great by telling them that they did a good job. People need to be pushed and pushed and pushed. That is the only way that someone like Charlie Parker comes to be. (Never mind that Parker died young, a drug addict and an alcoholic.) Fletcher has no regrets or remorse.

Whiplash magnifies the dynamics between victims and their abusers. In a strange way, the movie both condemns and then justifies the abuse. The movie shows why victims stay in the relationship and how easy it is for the victims to become victimizers themselves. But the movie espouses a harmful message: if the victim just sticks it out, the victim will emerge victorious and secure the admiration of the victimizer. Not a cool or realistic message.

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