Spoilers for Whiplash lie ahead.
Straight out of cliché corner is the phrase ‘stick the landing’, three words that are being more and more used online to question whether a story – be it TV show, book, film, or game – can satisfyingly conclude. Especially in a era where, with blockbuster cinema in particular, the build-up appears to have become the most important factor, coming up with an ending that delivers feels like a magical elixir, the kind that’s eluding more and more writers and directors.
Just look at the last year or two of big blockbuster films. How many end with characters having a punch-up? With effects being thrown around, an explosion of noise and colour on screen in lieu of a satisfying story? Sure, some endings work, some really grab you get you invested. But the majority? Well, they’re just noise.
And it’s why I think 2014’s Whiplash deserves even more praise than it got on its initial release. Appreciating that this is an Oscar-winning film (and deservedly so) that won rave reviews on its original release (again, deservedly so), I’d nonetheless like to go out on a limb and suggest that the last 15-20 minutes or so is as tense, nerve-wracking and brilliant an ending to a relatively sizeable American studio movie as we’ve had of late (albeit a low budget movie, that was picked up by a studio afterwards. But that in turn ensured a wide release for the film, so I’m sticking with the description).
Spoilers, inevitably, follow from this point onwards.
With 20 minutes to go of the film, then, we see Miles Teller’s Andrew turning up at the JVC festival concert, ready to play the drums again. This has followed his coincidental reunion – and invitiation to play the content – with teacher from hell Terence Fletcher, played by J K Simmons. Already, there’s so much going on here. Andrew, after all, is the one who ultimately got Fletcher fired from Shaffer Conservatory Of Music. Conversely, Fletcher is the one who expelled Andrew. The uneasy tensions, earned and built up throughout the movie, are already crackling.
The twist that Fletcher’s invitation is an act of revenge, and that he knew all along that Andrew was the one who testified and got him the sack is brilliant. It leaves Andrew exposed on the stage, about to open to public ridicule. He hasn’t been given the music, the band is about to play. And he knows.
What’s brilliant about this is that these are two characters you’re not really supposed to like. We’ve already seen Andrew throw his girlfriend aside in the quest to be a musical great. We’ve seen him openly chastise his rival for the drumming chair. We’ve seen his relentlessness strip him of basic humanity, with only the olive branch of his dad – Paul Reiser – keeping him close to Earth.
As for Fletcher? Well, he’s a flat-out bully. The teacher from hell. He’s driven a student to suicide. He’s attacked, attacked, attacked. He’s a terrifying character to watch, repeating an oft-challenged anecdote about legendary drummer Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head. He fundamentally believes that people who are great need to have it bullied out of them. That there’s no such thing as “good enough”.
What’s incredible is that, going into the final act of Whiplash, I’m still rooting for both of these characters in slightly different ways. I firmly understand why they’ve made the choices they’ve made. They’ve both sacrificed everything for their music, and they’ve both come to firmly believe that this is what has to be done.
For the audience, there’s a question, too: can Andrew really be great unless Fletcher puts him through such severe levels of emotional abuse? Is that what it takes?
That’s all wrapped up as Andrew returns to the drum kit after initially walking off the stage in the finale. “I guess maybe you don’t have it” are the words from Fletcher, as the crowd sits there, gawping at Andrew. He walks into a hug from his dad, temporarily broken, before making that decision to go back to the stage.
It’s here where Whiplash really soars.
For then the last ten minutes of the film plays out, a virtually dialogue-free psychological battle of wills between Andrew and Fletcher. A piece of cinema that has me utterly holding my breath each time I watch it, my body tensing, my nails bitten to shreds. It’s daft: I know what’s coming. I’ve seen the film a few times. Yet each time I get so invested in it, that it’s like watching it afresh.
“Andrew, what are you doing, man?
“I’ll cue you”
It’s the seizing back of power by Andrew through his drumming performance, bleeding for the umpteenth time, sweating, putting his soul into his music. That a grievous act of bullying, an attempt to humiliate him in front of a huge crowd, during what’s arguably his last chance, has pushed him. And thus he gradually takes control.
“Now we’re going to slow it down a little bit,” says Fletcher to the audience. And that’s the cue for Andrew to start a performance that takes the best part of ten minutes. It’s also the cue for J K Simmons to deliver an acting masterclass, as we watch Fletcher first rage, and very, very slowly, begin to admire. It’s breathtaking filmmaking.
Director Damien Chazelle and editor Tom Cross’ cuts, with the tempo of the music, are perfect. It’s hard to get across just why it’s so exciting to watch. Perhaps the mix of an excellent music performance, and the tempo that provides, with the silent character drama that’s going on at the same time? That a battle of wills that’s raged for over 90 minutes is finally seeing two difficult characters not meeting in the middle, but meeting at the top.
It’s the moment where – going against the rules of endings! – Andrew’s drumming becomes softer and softer, almost silent, controlled to the nth degree. That’s where, finally, he and Fletcher are on the same wavelength.
And then there’s the simplest of endings. As the performance ends, the blood drips, Chazelle cuts to the eyes. Andrew, seeking approval. Fletcher, seeking brilliance. We don’t even see the smile on Fletcher’s face – Chazelle only films the top half of it – but we see his features lift. Satisfied, for the first time in the film. And then? One of the most earned smiles in the history of modern cinema from Andrew. Then the final crash of the drums. Then the end credits.
The film leaves moral questions, and the filmmakers acknowledged this as deliberate at the time. Do the ends justify the means, after all? No answers are given, no side is taken. That’s left to us afterwards.
I can’t remember in recent times being invested so much in a finale featuring characters I really wasn’t fond of. But the intensity, focus and brilliance of Whiplash had me willing the two of them on. Every single time. It’s an ending that sticks.
If you can think of a better modern ending to a widely released movie, I’d love to hear about it. No spoilers, though…