Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Nightcrawler Movie Review

I always admired Jake Gyllenhaal’s talent as an actor. His performance in Prisoners demonstrated a real step up in his game, after which I realized he had even more to offer. But now he stars as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, which features a Gyllenhaal performance that blew me away like I didn’t think possible. That’s pretty impressive considering his body of work.

We first see Bloom at night, concealed in darkness. He’s clipping the metal chain link of a fence. A security guard stops him. He maintains a friendly, though slightly awkward interaction with the guard. We think he might be able to talk his way out of the situation when suddenly he attacks. Next he’s driving along, the back of his truck loaded with scrap metal, including the chain link, and his wrist bearing the watch that he spied on the guard. The minor violence of the scene leaves such an impression because this young man comes across as so unassuming and physically harmless.

Next, after ably negotiating decent prices for his haul, he tries to talk the owner of the metal yard into hiring him. He sells himself using the language of a recent business school graduate, even offering himself as an unpaid intern until he proves his usefulness. He’s sold the audience on hiring him when the owner tells him, “I’m not hiring a fucking thief.” Bloom considers that for a beat, then smiles, knowingly chuckles, and walks off. He’s smart. He knows this guy is right and made a good business decision. And he admires it.

Then after witnessing a highway car crash one night and the freelance videographer (Bill Paxton) who captures the rescue effort and sells it to the morning news, he decides that’s what he wants to do. He gets himself a cheap camera and a police scanner and starts ambulance chasing on the graveyard shift, when the most gruesome events occur. He develops a professional relationship with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director at a local TV station. She’s like a washed up 21st century version of Fay Dunaway’s character in Network. She loves a good bloody, violent, or depraved story, especially when it involves wealthy white people. The more sensational or tabloid-worthy, the better.

Because Bloom is such a quick study, capable of learning most everything he needs from the Internet, he quickly outsmarts his competition and makes enough money to hire an assistant (Riz Ahmed) and then buy better equipment and a faster car. He’s not quite charismatic, but he is compelling and always makes a convincing argument. He’s well-versed in the verbiage of business acumen and self-promotion. He’s like a creepy savant, making everyone around him incredibly uncomfortable while they agree to his terms.

In terms of subject matter, Nightcrawler isn’t really breaking any new ground with its commentary on the public thirst for the most lurid and sensational storms or of the journalists willing to sell it. Network covered similar ground almost forty years ago. They subject seemed so anachronistic that I wondered for a while, until the use of a smart phone for navigation, whether the film took place in the 90s. I felt like that’s the decade where this story belongs. It was a time when reality television first began to blossom and people like Jerry Springer became famous by providing a network forum where the public could bear witness to and be entertained by the very worst behavior in human society.

As Bloom becomes more successful, he also becomes thirstier for more and more. He wants exclusivity on his stories. Eventually the lengths he goes to get what he wants become a commentary on the worst elements of journalism. Think of the paparazzi and the extent they go to get celebrity photos. Remember the uproar over Princess Diana’s death and the culpability attributed to the photographers who chased her limousine (another thing that made me think of the 90s)? But all sense of scandal that writer-director Dan Gilroy builds into his screenplay just seems out of place, out of date, and rather insignificant.

I’m sure it’s not at all coincidental that the other movie I kept thinking of in addition to Network was Taxi Driver, another classic from the same year. The sociopathic anti-hero Travis Bickle is more closely related to Lou Bloom than any other movie character of the past. But where Bickle’s actions presented us with moral dilemmas in our feelings toward him, our views on Bloom should cause no distress. He’s clearly psychotic and although you may find yourself perversely excited by what he might do next, you’re unlikely to feel that he’s at all righteous. At least Bickle killed the pimp in an attempt to rescue a young girl. But the Los Angeles of Nightcrawler might also call to mind the setting of Taxi Driver. Different cities and time periods, sure, but focused on the seediest aspects and the dirtiest and dingiest streets.

There’s plenty interesting at work here, most of it in Gyllenhaal’s assemblage of tics and body language, but the whole thing taken together doesn’t amount to much. I think Gilroy thinks he’s made something really substantial. It’s a solid thriller, better than most, I’d say, but still a long way from long-term memorable.

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