Movie review: 5 stars for Whiplash

Review/Drama

WHIPLASH (NC16)/106 minutes/Opens tomorrow/*****

The story: Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a drums student at a prestigious music conservatory, lands a much-coveted spot in the student orchestra run by the legendary conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). As competition season begins, pressure builds and Andrew finds himself giving up more and more to become the top-flight drummer that the tyrannical Fletcher thinks he can be.

Like a classic jazz tune, this movie takes a simple theme - what is an acceptable price for artistic greatness? - and with the application of craftsmanship and imagination, that slim starting idea is built into something approaching greatness.

Simmons' Golden Globes win for Best Supporting Actor earlier this week is deserved - his turn as the monstrous Fletcher will trigger post-traumatic stress in survivors of the Singapore education system.

But credit is also due Teller as the kid willing to do anything to not be average.

Andrew's earnestness is heartbreaking, even as his ambition turns him into a jacka** to his friends and family.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle, a former drums student, writes from experience and his memories of his pressure-cooker music school are a punch to the gut on the screen.

The centrepieces of the movie are the exchanges between Fletcher and his proteges, in general, and with Andrew, in particular.

The moral dilemma is never nailed down. Hands bloodied from hours of drums practice, the destruction of the sense of self-worth, the loneliness of fighting a world that wants to take everyone down to a socially acceptable level of mediocrity - the film seduces viewers into thinking that these drawbacks are worth the sacrifice, even as it questions the sanity of the belief.

As in a work of psychological horror, the two-hander set pieces are anticipated with a sense of unease. They unfold like a slow-motion explosion - Fletcher's acid remarks can at any moment turn into full-bore abuse, the words carefully chosen to turn a vulnerable young person into a blubbering mess.

The audience becomes complicit - gasping and gawking like bystanders at a bad traffic accident, glad to be watching, not participating.

And if Fletcher is pleased with the music and offers a tight smile that says, "that was cool", the feeling is one of overwhelming relief and giddy joy.

That is when one realises that this movie does not just make one watch an abusive relationship. It is making one live it.