The wild and worthy “Whiplash”

There are no creaking staircases. No one crouched behind the door. No views through the crosshairs of a sniper rifle. No guns, no knives, no car chases, not a single weapon, ghost, demon, criminal, or even lonely motel owner with mommy issues.

But somehow the movie “Whiplash” is the most tense, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride I’ve ever seen. And by the way, it’s about a drummer.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle has created an excellent and taut piece of filmmaking, up for 5 Oscars and deserving more. The story is a deceptively simple one about an ambitious (to say the least) young drummer struggling under the harsh (to say the least) tutelage of a seasoned jazz musician. It’s hard to say which actor gives the more shocking performance – Miles Teller’s descent into soulless musical abandon is written in lowercase letters across his stony face, while JK Simmons’ wrathful insistence on perfection contorts his face and voice to monstrous proportions. Their twisted chemistry is so palpable, so uncomfortable, that the movie crackles with a tension that’s almost unbearable.

That relationship is translated expertly into an alternately lush and frenetic soundtrack (featuring standards “Caravan” and “Whiplash” and original pieces by Justin Hurwitz). Chazelle has crafted a movie with three main characters: the boy, the teacher and the jazz. All are tangled up in a knot of passion, beauty, anger, and the ruthless pursuit of greatness.

But even beyond the flawless work in front of and behind the camera, “Whiplash” poses some interesting questions about our cultural obsession with the “special.” In a country where every performance gets a standing ovation, every 140-character banality and blog entry gets published and every snapshot on social media gets a thumbs-up, “Whiplash” is concerned with the nature and price of lasting worthiness. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’” asserts Simmons’ Fletcher. This truly special movie might just convince you how right he is. -LB

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Published 5/10/15.