Nightcrawler (*****) is the best kind of throwback

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Nightcrawler – 2014

Written & Directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Ann Cusack, Kevin Rahm, Eric Lange

This is the kind of film that keeps me watching movies. The acting, the cinematography, the script and the promise of making an unforgettable experience with a small amount of overhead. This is the type of work the new Hollywood of the early 1970’s envisioned before it was derailed by greed, drugs and STD. If Paul Schrader could have stayed straight, this might be something we would have seen from him.

Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a thief and a sociopath, doing whatever he deems necessary to move forward in life. Many have indicated that he is merely a vehicle to showcase how far down our society has fallen in the age of 24 hour news. Really, though, he’s more an example of how streets crowded with sheep do a good job disguising the wolves. He comes across an accident on a freeway and he just pulls over to look. He sees Joe Loder (Paxton) jump right in with a camera and film the grisly details. Then he learns Loder can get paid for this and decides to steal enough metal products and high performance bicycles to get himself a camera and a police scanner.

After an early success, he hires Rick (Ahmed) to be his navigator and second camera. The negotiations show much about Bloom. He sees Ahmed as a tool to get to the next step. There is absolutely nothing there for Lou on a human scale.

His early work is all negotiated with Nina, the news director for the lowest rated overnight news in Los Angeles. His increasingly daring work pays dividends for both and he pushes the envelope with her. This leads both of them to take even more risks and the resulting demands exact a toll on everyone but them.

Much of Nightcrawler exists in a bubble that encapsulates Lou Bloom. His reality is shaped by high intellect and a low threshold for morality. This viewpoint finds a comfortable niche in local news of Orange County. The viewer must have a willing suspension of disbelief in some of the things we see. There is a consequence for some of the things that he does if they were to be done by normal people in the real world. I have never seen the type of graphic shots that he takes on my local news. Taken in context of the character and this story, however, it works. By the time we’ve reached the conclusion everything comes together perfectly.

Gyllenhaal is not only one of the best actors of this age, but his capacity to pick interesting material is unmatched. I would love to see him work with Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon on anything. His ability to express chameleon’s range of expression with a detached void behind the eyes gives Lou Bloom the most horrific visage since Michael Meyers.

Why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue.

Lou is the kind of person who is forever learning what he can do, but not whether he really should do it. His character is the very definition of a means to an end. According to IMDb, in 116 minutes of screen time, Bloom blinks only 4 times. No sleep for dreaming. The interactions with his supposed superiors in contrast to the way he treats his employee, Rick gives great insight into the mind of a sociopath. Society is not filled with fellow travelers: only obstacles and equipment to avoid or use. Gylenhaal deserves recognition for this role.

I have missed Rene Russo. She’s always been one of my favorite actresses, with a deceptive range. Her return in the Thor movies did not count so much as this much meatier and sleazier presentation as Nina. Allowing her character to be emotionally undressed by the sociopath that is Lou Bloom, Russo allowed herself the appearance of a mountain being dissolved from within. It is played perfectly by her director-husband Gilroy. Only someone with the talent of Russo can be motivated to play broken at one moment and go back to playing whole the next scene.

What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them?

Ahmed gave a remarkable lead performance in the film the Reluctant Fundamentalist. His performance as Rick is the exact person that one might see answering an ambiguous advertisement from sheer desperation. His slow build from “too hungry to complain” to “something is not right” gives the viewer the most identifiable character. His humanist character is a startling contrast to Gyllenhaal’s lack thereof.

Gilroy shows an incredible eye for the beauty of the twilight of Los Angeles. The visions of beauty contrasted with the gruesome visage tracked down by “nightcrawlers” brings it home for the detached watcher. We can identify with a Rest Area being watered at night. Seeing what is just out of reach of the sprinkler is disconcerting. The car chase scene in the last act is as riveting as anything I have seen since The French Connection. That it is slowly built up from a stake out to a set up 911 call only makes it more amazing to watch. I don’t know what Gilroy’s been doing between screenplays, but his is a talent that needs to be further explored.

Nightcrawler is a landmark kind of film that should give filmmakers hope. It is possible to create tightly wound stories with great characters, plot and visuals within a tight budget. That this is the best film that has been released since Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter is not an accident. There are true artists out there with something worth saying. I don’t fault Hollywood for missing them. I am thankful we live in a time where it’s possible to find them, the way Lou Bloom finds things…or people.

(***** out of *****)

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