Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Belated thoughts on the thrilling, terrifying pathology of Dan Gilroy's "Nightcrawler"

In my ongoing efforts to discuss as much of the year in film as possible before Top 10 time, I want to take another look back at a film from October, as I did with Birdman earlier. Like that film, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is one of my favorites from this past year. I actually saw it right after Birdman, on the very next evening, and it kind of killed me that I didn’t have time to write about either of them that weekend. These two films energized me at a time when I really needed it, when I needed to feel in love with movies again after months of work on a single, strenuous project. Honestly, I don’t know if my recent surge in productivity would have happened without these films. Before I saw them, I was ready to take some time away from writing about film, maybe skip the rest of 2014 and come back next year, but after being electrified by these two singular powerhouse works of art? There was no way I couldn’t stick with things, if I only so I could later make a Top 10 list featuring both titles (which it may or may not because, as I’ve said repeatedly, this year has been insanely rich with wonderful movies).

Nightcrawler is certainly worthy of the extra attention as, like Birdman, it is a film with an awful lot on its mind that also manages to be supremely entertaining, filled with haunting energy, provocative ideas, and one of the great modern character creations in Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom. As with Birdman, I’m not going to bother avoiding spoilers here, as the film has been out for months, and as with that earlier piece, this analysis will be of most use to those who have already seen the film, and wish to discuss it further.

Read my thoughts on Nightcrawler after the jump…

In the early years of my college education, my plan was to earn a double-degree in Film Studies and Journalism, and I spent about two years taking Journalism classes before realizing that I had boarded a swiftly sinking ship, one in which every other passenger was screaming frantically at everyone else to jump for dear life. The level of barely-suppressed anxiety on display about the state of the news industry, from Professors, teaching assistants, and fellow students, was simply undeniable at a certain point, as every day of every class became about the dilemmas crippling the industry, and the uncertainty of existing within it in the months or years to come. The state of ‘news’ these days – in print, on television, online, wherever – is in such utter disarray and freefall that the problems are impossible to ignore, especially when studying the ethics, principles, and skills that have all but evaporated from the form. By the time I walked away, it felt like we were being prepared for a dog-eat-dog world in which all the things we were being taught would inevitably be sacrificed for basic survival.

It felt, in short, like the beginning of a path that might someday end up in the vicinity of Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, where only an intense desperation and sociopathic determination could drive genuine career success. Going out every night to hunt for accidents, film them, and sell the graphic imagery to the highest bidder isn’t just a nightmare scenario – I imagine it’s an actual bad dream more than one journalism student has suffered after a particularly hopeless day.

The man who cheerfully signs up for this nightmare, ‘Protagonist’ Louis Bloom (one has to keep that word in quotes for a monstrous creep like this) says he has no formal education, and that his passion for ‘journalism’ (again with the quotes) is a new one, born out of circumstance and hobbyist enthusiasm. I don't know if I believe him. Bloom is sort of like Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight – we know absolutely nothing about him or his life beyond what we can see in the frame, and he is this giant, grinning, terrifying enigma as a result. Bloom is a sociopath, obviously, but a special breed, and part of me wonders if he did try going the traditional route, spending four years at college and then trying to enter the workforce, in journalism or some other related discipline. At the start of the film, Bloom is absolutely desperate, frantic to do anything to get his foot in the door and find some level of success or stability, and while he has this cool, level-headed determination that masks that clawing interior, I think there’s something very recognizable about this man in modern America. He is not just the failed journalism student writ large, willing to abandon all semblance of morality or boundaries just to get his name out there, but the archetypal late-twenties person unable to get a career up and running. Most people don’t go insane about these things, of course, but if a person in those unfortunately common circumstances did have a couple of screws loose, they might just look a little like Louis Bloom.

In many ways, I think Nightcrawler is 2014’s answer to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and that’s no small praise. This is a wildly different film in most ways, certainly, but like Taxi Driver, Nightcrawler is a piercing, violent satire of America’s obsession with violence, and the way people can find fame or success – can actualize their dream identities, in short – by inserting themselves directly into the most destructive, bloody parts of American society. Both films are nihilistic takes on the state of the white American male, on the loneliness and desperation that can drive a person to chillingly celebrated extremes, and I think it’s actually an instructive, fascinating exercise to compare the Scorsese’s 1970s take on these ideas with Gilroy’s 2014 film.

Travis Bickle and Lou Bloom are similar in more ways than one – isolated and aimless, but with fierce intelligence and determination – but where Bickle dealt with his lonely lack of direction by plotting to kill a politician (and wound up becoming a hero only by a violent twist of circumstance), Bloom plans to make a name for himself by preying on the weak within the confines of legitimate media. Bickle plotted to break his way through the mainstream, to shatter social boundaries through murder, while Bloom has this creepy, pathological insistence on being accepted as a part of the traditional media machine. He doesn’t have to exact violence on others – he just has to chase after and observe the violence of the world with an unflinching eye, to shed all ethical and emotional limitations and drive right towards the heart of brutality and decay. Like Travis Bickle, he is rewarded for it – but unlike his fictional predecessor, he gets those rewards by following his preordained path of treachery. Gilroy’s film is even more deeply nihilistic than Scorsese’s in this way, and compounded with the more obvious humor layered over the whole thing, there is something pretty terrifying about the damning American portrait Gilroy paints here. We are not innocent bystanders in Bloom’s story, after all – we’ve all been watching the kinds of stories he films for years, and if a person actually obtained the kind of graphic footage Lou shoots, we would of course flock to it. I doubt there is actually a man like Lou Bloom out in the world today, but the most provocative part of watching Nightcrawler is realizing that the circumstances absolutely exist for a figure like him to prey upon.

Jake Gyllenhaal is an actor whose work I have always enjoyed, but the performance he delivers here is positively next-level. It’s a tremendous character creation, for one, and as much as we can compare Lou Bloom to a figure like the Joker or Travis Bickle, I really can’t think of another protagonist with Lou’s specific bag of tics, with that same mixture of chipper determination and ruthless sociopathy. Gyllenhaal wears that riveting paradox on his sleeves, adopting a strikingly gaunt, haunted physicality (his eyes seem to pop right out of his skull) and throwing himself into the performance with stunning vibrancy. He’s consistently funny, in all the ways he barters deals or lectures others on the merits of honest hard work, but every laugh comes with accompanying horror, and when he goes fully robotic – just capturing footage with no attention paid to anything else, as though he is one with the violent desolation he perceives – Gyllenhaal is just grippingly terrifying.

I can only think of one or two other characters this year more vivid and memorable than Bloom – Ralph Fiennes’ M. Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel would be the major competition – and I love what the crazy extremes of Gyllenhaal’s work brings out in his co-stars. As the news director at the station Bloom sells to, Rene Russo at first seems like Lou’s perfect match, a similarly determined, icy presence who understands the lengths this man will go to. But even she starts to break apart after too much time spent in this man’s orbit, and every scene she and Gyllenhaal share is dynamite. As Rick, the assistant Bloom ‘hires’ (but barely pays) to help with his business, Riz Ahmed delivers a great reactive performance, a decent guy who has no idea what kind of underworld he has walked into. That relationship is the key to the film for me, as it moves from humorous banter early on to something truly hellish by the end. There are traces of the archetypal ‘devil story,’ here, with Bloom as the fallen angel who profits from manipulating others into destroying themselves. Nightcrawler is so rich, and these character dynamics are the heart of the film’s power.

Well, that and the stupendous work done by cinematographer Robert Elswit, whose hazy, sleazy, beautiful, and intoxicating Los Angeles imagery is as precise and immersive as anything I’ve seen all year. Between this and Inherent Vice, Elswit has photographed two of the all-time great cinematic portraits of LA, and the imagery in both films is so bold, specific, and resonant that I struggle to think of any other single artist, working in any filmmaking craft, who had a better year than Elswit. James Newton Howard’s score is the perfect complement to the film’s visual palette, an amazing deviation for the composer that branches off in so many directions over the course of the film. There’s that lonely, longing guitar theme at the heart of the score (which, like Bloom, sounds oddly cheerful in the midst of a dark, treacherous tone), which just soars whenever it appears, but then there are the quiet, ambient sections, so evocative and atmospheric. When the film kicks into a major set piece, Howard steps up as well, with this incredible assortment of percussive, brutal instrumentation that batters the viewer as hard as any of the imagery.

Those set pieces are indeed highlights, for while Nightcrawler is tense and riveting from start to finish, it kicks into a higher gear whenever Bloom loses himself chasing down a fresh crime scene, and the standout sequences from the film’s second half are positively masterful. The incident at the mansion, where Bloom stealthily turns a grim home invasion into his own personal ‘masterpiece,’ is about as tense and effective as it gets – and then the climactic car chase, wherein Bloom manipulates cops and criminals into a vicious explosion of brutality, is even better. It’s probably the single best ‘action’ sequence of the year, frankly, more thrillingly choreographed and captured than anything from any summer blockbuster, and it hits as hard as it does because no matter how well we think we ‘know’ Louis Bloom, there is always a horrific next step for him to take. The depths he and the film sink to in that climax are sort of awe-inspiring in their heartless extremity.

I love how resolutely Gilroy refuses ‘justice’ at the end of the film. The closest the film comes to a narrative attempt at bringing Bloom down is some anger and suspicion from the cops, but it’s intentionally without bite. Bloom is literally above reproach, because the world of Nightcrawler is built to reward men like him – just like Travis Bickle’s world was in Taxi Driver. The real-life implications are impossible to shake, because at the end of the day, Bloom’s world is our world. Somebody willing to go this far, to shed that much of their humanity and morality for the sake of our communal televised bloodlust, is going to be successful, and he’s going to inspire others. It’s a damning, searing message Gilroy is working with here, and what makes it all land so perfectly when the credits roll is the sort of happy-go-lucky tone with which Gilroy infuses the final scenes. Unflappably optimistic to the very end, even after revealing his true ‘face’ to Rick (and the audience), Lou Bloom is the persistent, chipper go-getter, and he gets to keep wearing that mask for as long as he wants – up to and including putting together a new team of young, hapless interns, to whom he can impart more of his ruthless philosophy.

I walked out of Nightcrawler simultaneously thrilled, terrified, shaken, and euphoric, drunk on the brilliance of the film’s craft and unsettled by its darkest implications. That’s the kind of reaction that makes me remember why I love movies in the first place. Nightcrawler is one of 2014’s most unique and accomplished works, and the more time I spend considering it, the more I value everything it has to offer.

Follow Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

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