Directed By: Eli Drinkwitz
Starring: Harrison Mevis, Larry Rountree, Tyler Badie, Connor Bazelak, Keke Chism, Damon Hazelton, Barry Odom
Synopsis: Seeking to make his name known, a talented kicker steps up against an intimidating, aggressive teacher — and somehow beats the odds.
It’s not always easy to know when you experience a classic for the first time.
Sometimes, of course, it is. The swell of endorphins, the waves of serotonin after hours of action-packed, sometimes humorous fun — those are the easy hits, the ones you talk about for a week, then forget about for the rest of your life. They’re empty calories, tiding you over until you get a real fix.
The times when you don’t get empty calories, then, are a bit harder to earn. At times these are more subtle masterworks, things that leave you questioning the little things in order to show you something bigger, something grander. At times, these sorts of classics can also be brutal on the senses, sensory nukes that send your brain into overdrive, leaving you high on adrenaline and little foundation on which to stand.
Eli Drinkwitz’s latest feature at Mizzou Studios — and arguably his greatest — is one of these former masterstrokes, a bruising corker that has a little bit of everything: a familliar villain, unexpected heroes, a turncoat and enough twists to knock you backward.
In this young stage of his career, it’s clear to say that Whiplash may be his masterpiece.
Centered around the prospects of a young kicker looking to make it on the big stage, Whiplash takes us into a world of football so chaotic that it becomes melodic. The dissonance over time warps into harmony, creating a narrative that unseats you and gives you just enough time to get back on your feet... before delivering a final haymaker.
The hero of Drinkwitz’s latest — a quiet, unheralded man played by an unflappable Harrison Mevis — seeks to prove himself on the grand stage, at the feet of a proverbial giant. This giant may seem familiar to longtime fans of Mizzou’s works — he’s played by none other than former director Barry Odom, a brilliant casting move from Drinkwitz that introduces an extra level of stakes into the story. Despite being beset by hardships (not of his own doing, it should be said), Mevis’ plucky protagonist finally finds his way to the stage he’s craved, delivering an absolute banger to cap the feature off.
While there’s plenty of praise to be heaped on Mevis, who has shown extraordinary promise in small roles before, the risky choice to make him the lead should also earn Drinkwitz some praise as well. Mevis oozes levels of confidence that can only come from a just-as-confident director. The rest of the performances bear this out as well. Taking a small step backward as the second bill, Larry Rountree and Connor Bazelak — both stars in their own right — do what they’ve done in all of their previous collaborations with Drinkwitz. Their performances are eye-catching, but generous enough as to allow Mevis to take center stage as the hero. There’s also some terrific bit casting from players like Keke Chism and Damon Hazelton, once highly-regarded talents who clearly haven’t lost a step while waiting in the wings for their time in the limelight.
Of course, no casting choice is as good as that of Odom, Drinkwitz’s predecessor. Odom’s inclusion in the story creates a self-referential narrative that real Tigerphiles can get behind. The brilliant bit, though, isn’t just that Odom is cast. It’s just as much in the performance, in which the antagonist with the big, bad reputation turns out to be nothing more than bluster, as Mevis and the rest of the crew make light work of him by the end. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, creating an intimidating villain who also doesn’t represent an existential threat to the hero, but Drinkwitz has done it.
There’s also no way talk about Whiplash without discussing the ending, a poetic pipe bomb of sound and fury. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it — though most of our readers should have by now. Rest assured, there are moments where it’s easy to feel like hope is lost. But when that feeling begins to set in, it’s met with a flurry of responses, from quick hitting notes to grinding, punishing rhythms. Mevis slams home the finisher and the screen fades to black, leaving you in a revery and maybe with a bit of a headache.
No doubt, Whiplash isn’t an easy sit at times. Yes, it’s every bit as thrilling as anything Drinkwitz has done at Mizzou, but the lows in this one feel as low as they can get. It’s not until the end that you see the orchestral brilliance of it all. As Drinkwitz likes to say, “no story can be great without a little adversity.” Despite the tense moments, the ending makes you feel as if the script had been written beforehand — like the director knew where he was headed all along. Of course, he did. That’s what makes him brilliant. And that’s what makes Whiplash Drinkwitz’s finest work yet. Let’s hope it’s not his magnum opus.