Monday, November 3, 2014

Nightcrawler (****)

NIGHTCRAWLER
Written and Directed by Dan Gilroy

****

Nightcrawler accomplishes what few films can: to create a heightened reality that is also effected by the reality of day-to-day life. It's a scathing look at local news journalism, but it's mostly an eerie character study of a dangerous sociopath who sees his pathway to success. The film is written and directed by Dan Gilroy, brother of John Gilroy, a veteran Hollywood editor, and Tony Gilroy, an accomplished screenwriter and director of the superb Michael Clayton. Both Tony and Dan kicked the can for closed to a decade as for-hire scripters; Tony wrote the original Bourne trilogy, while Dan wrote films like 2006's The Fall and the sentimental Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots movie Real Steel. Tony's first directorial effort was Clayton and now Nightcrawler is Dan's. I mention this to make clear that Dan Gilroy is far from a first-time filmmaker. He's a 55-year-old career movie man who knows how to tell a story, and even better, he knows how to show us that story. So, similar to Michael Clayton, and some of Michael Mann's best films, Nightcrawler is not only entertaining, but a display of expert filmmaking, the culmination of a life's work. A film both polished and gritty, which will ask you to suspend disbelief while presenting shocking scenarios that don't feel to far from the truth.


The film marks another in a line of good roles choices for Jake Gyllenhaal, who has spent the last two years playing a wide range of engaging characters, including one half of a rambunctious LAPD duo in End of Watch, a brooding, tattooed detective in Prisoners, and playing two different men in the doppelganger thriller Enemy earlier this year. Gyllenhaal has always been talented, but there are times when he's almost been limited by his good looks into roles like Prince of Persia and Love and Other Drugs. But Gyllenhaal is a character actor at heart, and in Nightcrawler, he de-glams significantly, reducing his weight to a very gaunt figure, creating striking valleys in his usually handsome face that make him look like a villain from a German Expressionism film. He plays Louis Bloom, a conniving opportunist with serious issues connecting with other human beings. When he watches a two-man film screw swarm in on a fiery car crash scene, he gets his first glimpse of the dark underworld that is freelance crime journalism in Los Angeles. When Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) and his partner back away from the flaming car, Louis stops Joe on his way back to his van and asks him the details of the job. Annoyed, Joe explains that he will now auction this footage off to the highest bidder. "It's a flaming asshole of a job," Loder states in one of the film's many charming lines.

Louis uses a not-too-legitimate strategy to gain access to a camcorder and a police scanner and decides to start his own news journalism company out of his car. With no experience in journalism beforehand, Louis' knowledge of boundaries and standards go out the window when he approaches a ripe crime scene. When he gets on the scene of a carjacking turned shooting, he passes by another camera-toting freelancer and kneels right next to medics and police officers to get a close-up shot of the victims bleeding bullet wounds. He brings the footage to KWAL, a local news station and is able to walk himself into a face-to-face meeting with the station's news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo). While watching his footage, Nina is immediately impressed by Louis' gall and shameless drive on the scene. The station's manager, Frank (Kevin Rahm), thinks that the footage is too explicit to show on network television, but Nina knows that they have the chance to bring in a lot of eyes and decides to pay Louis for his work. Afterword, Nina explains the basic needs of the station: the most sought after material usually includes urban criminals attacking suburban victims. "Bloody?" Louis asks. Nina doesn't officially agree, but she certainly doesn't dissuade his line of thinking.

After his first paycheck, Louis' hopes of making it in the business are encouraged and he decides to take on an assistant. He hires Rick (Riz Ahmed), a young man with very little work experience. As a boss, Louis is off-putting and critical, but coats all of his criticisms with passive-aggressive smarminess that Rick only puts up with because he desperately needs the money. Initially, Rick's main job is giving Louis directions to a crime scene as Louis drives all around Los Angeles like a maniac, running red lights and driving well over the speed limit. Before long, as he continues feeding footage to Nina, he's able to afford a new car, a new scanner, and gets a second camera for Rick to get additional footage. As Louis' exclusive relationship with Nina increases, Louis makes a leverage move. In a dinner scene which Nina thinks is just Louis' sheepish attempt at a date, Louis explains the importance out his outlandish video footage to the station's success. This is the moment in Nightcrawler where Louis' true manipulative nature is brought to light. This is not a man of any moral fiber, and his mental state can truly be called into question. But he does well to study the weak spots of both his rival, Joe Loder, and his professional partner, Nina.

The film is edited by Dan's brother John, and while Nightcrawler usually edits around Louis' few moments of physical violence, there is the heavy suggestion that this is a man capable of serious maliciousness. He's Daniel Plainview, except he fools everyone with a creepy, menacing grin instead of salesmanship. He speaks to people in plastic, Dale Carnegie-inspired clich√©s about what you need to do to succeed and has an uncanny ability to be one step ahead of all other threats. As a performance, this is probably Gyllenhaal's best work to date. The range of expressions that Louis has is limited, but Gyllenhaal always finds a way to mutate it and find new ways to make this character scarier. The way Gilroy decides to watch him is incredibly detached. He's a fascinating specimen, but the screenplay doesn't really seem interested in giving us background or history, nor does it have to. We see all we need to know to learn that Louis is a budding psychopath who very possibly has more horrible incidents in his past before the events of this film. At times, Louis Bloom feels likes a horror movie villain: dangerous, despicable, unkillable. Gyllenhaal's emaciated figure adds a lot to Bloom's eerie appearance, but the actor delves deeper than surface details. It's Christian Bale's performance from American Psycho but played for less laughs.

The film is shot by Robert Elswit on digital, a choice that both adds to the film's seedy themes and allows us a view of Los Angeles that is unlike most we've seen. The film's visual aesthetic calls to mind both Altman's The Long Goodbye and Michael Mann's Collateral which highlighted how L.A. can be at it's most beautiful at its darkest. Unlike someone like David Fincher, who uses digital cinematography to look as slick as possible (and is great at that), Elswit and Gilroy embrace the form's artificial quality, and uses it to comment on the mise-en-scene of the movie itself. All of the night's streets feel hazy and a golden ring shines around every streetlight. It works hand-in-hand with the film's screenplay which has McKee-like tightness. Gilroy's script knows how to give us just enough information about a character for us to sit back and enjoy the plot at hand. Scene by scene, Louis' building rage and teetering sanity are made clearer and clearer, until we reach a fascinating climax which I won't spoil here. Michael Clayton and Collateral are Nightcrawler's obvious formal spirit animals, but what Elswit accomplishes here with his digital photography feels unique to me. That the visuals feel cheapened does not detract from the apparent skill behind the camera. It's like he's the anti-Emmanuel Lubezki.

Written and directed by Dan, edited by John, and produced by Tony, the Gilroy family has its fingerprints all over this movie. So it only makes sense that Dan Gilroy casts his own wife, Rene Russo, in the film's female lead. This is easily Russo's most significant role in any movie since the 1990's, where she was usually overqualified as the sex pot in movies like Get Shorty and the Thomas Crown Affair remake. Nightcrawler may be the first role she's ever gotten that was actually worth her while. The performance calls back to Faye Dunaway's work in Network, a ruthless TV exec willing to anything to get a good rating. Dunaway's performance in that film is one of the greatest that I've ever seen, but there's a tenderness here with Russo that wasn't in the previous. Once Nina gets a glimpse of Louis' situational superiority, she never gives up spirit but does accept his upper hand. She's willing to give Louis more power but she does it on her own terms. As Rick, newcomer Riz Ahmed is a perfect foil to Louis' erratic demeanor. Ahmed's Rick is both a voice of reason and an audience surrogate, but Ahmed never loses track of the character through all that. At it's core the character is a man being financially exploited by a madman, connecting with the film's subtle theme of minorities being marginalized by powerful whites. The subtext of Rick's dire situation is brought on almost entirely by Ahmed's skilled performance, which allows us to view most clearly just how unhinged Louis Bloom is.

Local news is an institution which banks on the fear of suburban white America, and plays to the stereotypical narrative of dangerous minorities committing crimes and causing harm to innocent whites. While displaying alarmist headlines and showcasing disturbingly violent images, these news programs actually comfort those who watch with the idea that that they were right in their institutionally racist thoughts - that their fears of minorities are confirmed. Perhaps Nightcrawler's depiction of it is a bit hyperbolic, but it's possible that it's not - all we know is what ends up on the news, and Nightcrawler's depiction of that aspect feels particularly spot on. Nightcrawler keeps the racial complications of what a station like KWAL does at arm's reach, but it doesn't ignore it either. The film doesn't feel the need to bury the lead on what is actually happening in this world, and while a man like Louis Bloom is definitely something to be scared of, it barely holds a candle to the level of manipulation and scare tactics used by the local news to help confirm to middle class whites that they live in a world that needs to be feared, that they must protect themselves from the "others". At the end of Nightcrawler, the message seemed clear: we waste a lot of time being afraid of urban crime when we should really be afraid of somebody like Louis Bloom.

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