Thursday, November 27, 2014

NIGHTCRAWLER Is the Pitch-Black Satire We Need


- The fact that NIGHTCRAWLER was the #1 movie at the American box-office over Halloween weekend is, surely, one of those strange anomalies that will often be mentioned as an exception-to-the-rule - the rule being that smart, weird, adult-oriented, non-franchise films can still do well. Nightcrawler's success may ultimately prove modest in the grand scheme of things, but, this is a film that very much deserves to be seen by a wide audience. It's a film that reminds me of some of the great movies about who-we-are, one part Taxi Driver, one part Network. Jake Gyllenhaal stars - in a soon-to-be-iconic role as weirdo loner Lou Bloom - and he absolutely kills it. He delivers a haunting, strange, funny, and downright disturbing performance as an ambitious outcast whose moral compass is severely off-kilter. This is a film that really shocked me with just how dark and lurid it was willing to go. It pushes its plot to jaw-dropping extremes, and is all the more memorable for it. This is a can't-miss film that, in my mind, ranks right up there among the year's best.

NIGHTCRAWLER introduces us to Lou Boom and instantly makes him into a fascinating, idiosyncratic, and deeply disturbing protagonist. We see him trying to sell pilfered scrap metal, and then desperately, creepily try to convince the scrapyard owner he's selling to to hire him. "If you want to win the lottery, you gotta have the money to buy a ticket." argues Lou. Later, Lou comes across a bloody car wreck, and becomes intrigued by all of the opportunistic video jockeys swarming the crash scene, grabbing video footage in hopes of selling it to local news networks. Lou sees this as a way to make money, as something he'd be good at. So he buys himself a video camera, recruits a down-on-his-luck assistant named Rick, and is off to the races. Lou finds he has an aptitude for monitoring police bands and getting the sort of shock-TV footage that the local news channels crave. He becomes a regular supplier of footage to a local news show run by Nina (Rene Russo). "If it bleeds, it leads" is her mantra.

What's so interesting about NIGHTCRAWLER - and what makes it such a potent satire - is the way in which Nina and her team are repelled and repulsed by Lou, yet also serve as his enablers. As someone who's now lived in Los Angeles for close to ten years, I've seen how uniquely-obsessed LA local news is with sensational stories - the more violent the better. Good luck trying to stay up to date on local politics via LA TV news broadcasts. But if you want to see car chases, car crashes, and gruesome scenes of domestic violence, LA's news teams have got you covered. Of course, local TV news isn't exactly a prime source for news for many people these days, so you might think that NIGHTCRAWLER's premise is potentially outdated. In reality though, NIGHTCRAWLER functions brilliantly as not just a satire of local news' morally-bankrupt bloodlust, but also of any number of institutions that build empires off the blood of others. Lou Bloom represents the nightmare version of The American Dream - an ambitious self-starter who rolls up his sleeves, starts his own business, and ends up becoming a successful entrepreneur. But he does all of this all while his moral compass - shaky to begin with - increasingly shatters. It makes you think: how many businesses, how many institutions, how many empires, were built on blood?

Lou Bloom goes from merely quirky and creepy to downright scary, as he increasingly shows himself willing to do anything and everything to get the footage he wants. As the film progresses, he reveals himself to be a flat-out sociopath. And to its credit, NIGHTCRAWLER doesn't pull punches. This is an extreme film willing to go to very dark, very messed-up places in order to tell its story and make its point. During the film's climactic sequence, in which we see the full extent of Lou's depravity, I've got to say that I was in shock at what I was seeing. The film's intensity will leave you breathless.

Give credit to writer/director Dan Gilroy. The guy's been around for a while as a writer, but this is his first directorial effort. And what an effort it is. Gilroy makes NIGHTCRAWLER a definitive Los Angeles film. He films Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom all around the greater LA area, and he vividly paints Los Angeles at night as a dark place full of secrets and violence and ominous danger. This is not the glamorous side of LA, but the seedy, shady side of the city that residents see often, but that Hollywood often ignores. This is the sort of LA that gives birth to bottom-feeders like Lou Bloom - parasitic people who dwell in the shadows and roam the streets in search of blood. Gilroy infuses his film with creeping-dread atmosphere and a pitch-black sense of humor. He also crafts some truly riveting action, including an edge-of-your-seat car chase that is among the most nail-biting I've seen in a movie this year. The sense of tension in some of this film's scenes is off-the-chain.

So much of what makes NIGHTCRAWLER as memorable as it is can be attributed to Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as Lou Bloom. Gyllenhaal's breakout role came from Donnie Darko, in which he showed that he could ably play the oddball outsider. The actor has since dabbled with playing more traditional leading-man characters, but he's always excelled at playing eccentrics. And here is his most eccentric character yet - one which Gyllenhaal makes into a funny-scary mash-up that is utterly distinct and totally mesmerizing. Bloom speaks in a measured, hyper-literal manner that might seem completely comical in other hands, but Gyllenhaal tempers the character's quirkiness with a real darkness and edge. He goes all-in, and so you buy this character despite his over-the-topness. This is Oscar-worthy stuff from Gyllenhaal.

Rene Russo is also absolutely great as TV news producer Nina Romina. Russo makes Nina nearly as compelling of a character as Lou - she's a veteran producer who knows what she wants and tends to get it. But she and Lou are two sides of a coin: Lou's weirdness and depravity is sort of out there in the open - he tries to mask it, but it's there. Nina's depravity is of the slicker, more corporate, more institutionalized variety. It's the kind that's a seemingly acceptable part of corporate America. And yet a key part of her job is making deals with devils like Lou Bloom. As their relationship becomes stranger and more personal, we see the intertwining of the two roles. Is Nina really all that different from Lou? Is she not just Lou with a better job title, more money, and more professional tact? In any case, Russo does a bang-up job of making Nina a fascinating foil and accomplice to Lou. There are a couple of other notable turns in the film. Riz Ahmed is fantastic as Rick - a street kid who gets hired by Lou to be his wingman during his nighttime escapades. Ahmed perfectly portrays Rick as just the sort of desperate-for-cash guy who might be willing to hook up with Lou - but who eventually can't help but question his employer's sanity, as the full scope of his pathology becomes evident. Rick is a character both funny and heartbreaking, and I think Ahmed deserves major attention for his breakout role here. Bill Paxton is also excellent as a rival nightcrawler (the name for the guys like Lou who crawl the city in search of lucrative accident footage for TV news).

NIGHTCRAWLER is one of those films that burrows deep into your psyche and won't get out. Rich in atmosphere and completely uncompromising, it holds a mirror up to the media - and to America - and shows its darkest side in lurid detail. This is who we are, it says, and the truth, well ... it's ugly. Lou Bloom's midnight rides through Los Angeles may just become the stuff of cinematic legend: this is must-see satire of American Dream as American Nightmare.

My Grade: A

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