Monday, November 17, 2014

Nightcrawler

The recent release NIGHTCRAWLER manages, quite curiously, to feel both out of date and scarily relevant, as in-the-moment as anything possibly could.  Its big themes of corruption and moral bankruptcy are timeless.  The film's story: an ambitious, likely sociopathic young man named Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) happens upon an accident on a Los Angeles freeway and finds a career to which he attaches himself with frightening zeal.  A Steve Jobs or Kenneth Lay in the making. NIGHTCRAWLER in fact could be viewed as the backstory of a future Barbarian at the Gate.

But writer/first time director Dan Gilroy does not shed any light on Lou's earlier years, what led/reduced him, as the film opens, to hawking stolen metal parts to junk yards.  One buyer sees straight through Lou's corporate zombie speak/positive thinking/"what color is your parachute" patter when he asks for a job: "I'm not hiring a fucking thief." Undaunted, Lou combs the night looking for other career opportunities, finally seeing his bright future when he discovers that accident and crime scenes can mean big paydays. That night when Lou watches the police pull a woman from a twisted wreck and the guys videotaping it.  Local network affiliates offer sometimes generous fees for grisly footage. "If it bleeds, it leads!" cries amateur crewman/eventual competitor Joe (Bill Paxton).

Lou buys himself a cheap camera and police scanner (to scope potential material), clumsily attempting to capture footage that may provide a lead in to the Morning News.  He's threatened with arrest and pushed back by cops and EMTs, but a start-up entrepreneur sees no obstacle. He'll at last get that money shot, the close-up of gore over which T.V. news directors salivate. In Nina (Rene Russo), Lou will (eventually) find a like-minded opportunist, a woman who lives and dies by overnight ratings, who hops from station to station every few years when the numbers go south.
Nina is near sixty, desperate, bitter. Lou sizes her up quickly, and her industry where a half hour news program spends mere seconds on stories about the infrastructure and politics but precious minutes on murders and home invasions.

Lou is a go-getter.  A real producer. He'll beat the police to crime scenes, capture video inside private homes, even re-arrange a corpse to get what he needs.  With the assistance of a slow-witted drifter named Rick (Riz Ahmed), Lou will prove himself to be the ultimate closer, even manipulating both criminals and the police into a shoot out and deadly chase to get the goods.

NIGHTCRAWLER, for all of its strong points, still falls short of being the expected nasty little classic. Gilroy has written a tight and cynical tale that speaks of many ills, but often it feels a day late and a few dollars short.  Local news? Almost a quaint notion these days. I'm sure there's still an audience, but this tale would've resonated a lot more 20-30 or more years ago. With cable news and smartphone ubiquity these days, the plotline is a bit stale. Yet, technology plays a vital part in NIGHTCRAWLER, namely the Internet and GPS.  Lou states that his education came entirely from hours online, in fact. It might explain his complete lack of ability to relate to others in any human way. Others are rather pawns, tools to "get to the next level."

Gyllenhaal is just great in his role, total ownership. The isolation and behavior of Lou reminded me of Travis Bickle and Patrick Bateman more than once.  His emaciated appearance allows eyes sunken into a gaunt face, positively ghoulish, especially when he smiles. You can just as easily see him behind a lectern in a boardroom as lurking on L.A. streets. His dialogue is a virtual reprisal of every corporate manual, every cold performance review ("It's clear that I have more faith in your abilities than you do."). Gilroy is clearly evoking not just headline making CEOs but any middle management drone. Taken to the next level, natch. Russo also has her best role in many years.

Robert Elswit, frequent collaborator of Paul Thomas Anderson, frames the cityscape so beautifully, so enticingly, and so icily. His work here is among his best. Another example of L.A. is a character. NIGHTCRAWLER has some of the best location work I've seen. And yet, it all feels so retro, even cheesy at times. The attempt to use James Newton Howard's feel good score in an ironic fashion doesn't quite come off. While there are some thrilling moments of action, the film does resist opportunities for pace halting sex scenes and over the top violence, but Gilroy's direction somehow makes everything feel like we're merely watching a smart B-movie.

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