Whiplash is a good movie that I think was too cynical. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started watching it. All I knew was that I hated the poster. It was the same problem with Sicario, 90% of it was critic reviews. I watched the first 15 minutes of the movie a while ago but didn’t get into it so I stopped. After watching the whole thing, I have mixed feelings about it. By the end I feel like the movie paid itself off but it stumbled a lot on the way. It has a problem I think exists in recent movies I’ve seen of being too dark for its own good. I like its characters though.
If you haven’t seen it the film is like a sports movie for jazz musicians. A first year student at a music conservatory tries out for a part in a school band conducted by the intense Mr Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons. The film follows the student, Andrew’s, progression as a drummer as Fletcher pushes him past what’s acceptable.
I felt like there was a problem with the tone in this movie. J.K. Simmons is too likeable. In the first scene he walks in on Andrew drumming, asks him to play him a beat, which he stuffs up, and the camera cuts to a closed door Simmons just walked through. Given the roles Simmons is known for it was hard not to watch his abuse of the students like it’s part of a standup routine. It doesn’t help that Andrew isn’t likable. We’re barely given any insight into his character. He comes off as a cold, distant brat and I couldn’t feel sorry for him. There are long scenes of Fletcher’s tirades and embarrassments he puts his students through that, while I understood how awful they were, were hilarious to me. I didn’t care about the students so I couldn’t take anything he said seriously. The film becomes a thriller and the stakes keep getting higher and higher. But the dramatic climaxes became funnier and funnier to me.
Towards the end of the film it starts getting more interesting. Things happen that imply that the main character is more interesting than he was made out to be and Simmons becomes less likable. In the end it’s a movie about those two characters and it goes out on a high note because I felt like each of them have gone through an arc. I was laughing at the intense scenes for most of the movie but I was really into the climax.
I don’t see the appeal of making everything so dark. I don’t know what started this trend but I think it has to do with the popularity of shows like Breaking Bad. The end of this movie works better than what preceded it because we see characters in nice or non-dramatic situations just before drama happens. It sets up an atmosphere of normality that makes the bad stuff that comes after more unpleasant and engaging. The first 3/4 of the movie were relentlessly cynical to the point where it became funny to me. It only hurts the movie to have scenes so dark they’re no longer relatable.
I’ll take the game I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream as a counter-example. Sure, different medium, but I’m talking about tone here. Must Scream (I have no idea how to paraphrase that title well) takes place in one of the most depressing and disturbing scenarios possible. It’s the end of the world, caused by an all-powerful super-computer, who imprisons a small group of people to mentally and physically torture them for eternity. You go into the game and start playing as one of these people and they’re making these corny wisecracks about how tacky the worlds the supercomputer builds are or how cliché their predicaments are. They’re not howling in agony or breathlessly describing their surroundings with wet eyes 24/7. This implies the normalisation of suffering to them and makes moments when they’re genuinely affected by something more potent. I feel like if the game or short story it was based on was made into a film today everything would be grey and there would be rapes and murders of family members every 20 minutes.
But back to Whiplash. Things that happen in the later parts of the movie do make the characters sympathetic. For me that’s all I wanted this movie to do- make me care about them. In hindsight it made the first 3/4 of the film more interesting but I still think it’s flawed because I wasn’t invested until the end.
Whiplash is a good movie I think though. I like the music, J.K. Simmons and the main character but humans aren’t just a bunch of animals that’ll tear each other apart if no one’s looking (or even of they are in the case of Whiplash), we’re more interesting than that. Even Anno knew that when he made the amazingly depressing Evangelion. I need to be emotionally invested in characters before you tear them down, otherwise why would I care about them? In the end I cared about the characters in Whiplash, and there are worse movies out there. I liked it, but can’t say I like that FUCKING POSTER. STOP. Stop doing that.