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November 16, 2014

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Review: Nightcrawler

Rob thinks Nightcrawler is the best L.A. movie since Mulholland Drive.

"What if my problem wasn't that I don't understand people, but that I don't like them?"

What are you ambitious about? What do you love to do? What needs to you pursue, and how do you pursue them? What would you do if someone got in the way? We're an egotistical breed, we humans. We color ourselves righteous and justified in all that we do, no matter how many we hurt or how much we destroy. It's all part of the process. Eyes on the prize. Don't get emotional. With the right commitment and preparation, we can achieve each and every goal we set for ourselves. Forget the naysayers. Forget the rules. This is America. This is Los Angeles.

Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler is a masterpiece of American dreams. It's a film about blinding ambition coated in hopeless cynicism. Jake Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, jack of all trades and master of none. We meet him boosting chain-link fencing to make a quick buck at the scrapyards. A familiar story, sure, but this is no ordinary street rat; he's ambitious, hard-working, and eager to please.  He understands that there are no hand-outs. No second chances. He will earn his keep and make everyone proud. He tells as much to the scrap yard manager and asks for a job. Sorry, says the manager, but I don't hire thieves. Lou thanks him for his time and moves on. That's funny, we think. Look how undeterred he is. He's a little odd, this kid, but he's got a good strong American work ethic. Surely someone will give him a chance?

Driving home, Lou spots a fiery car wreck and pulls over for a look. Wait, is this an honest working man or a sociopath? Suddenly, Joe (Bill Paxton) and his camera crew rush past Lou to film the action. Without a moment's consideration of the people they're filming, they get what they need and go off to the next tragedy. Lou is amazed. It turns out the streets of LA are full of vultures who sell footage of human misery to the highest bidder. A thrift-shop camera and used police scanner later, Lou is hoping to capture some heartbreak of his own. After a night on the town, he heads to KWLA News to peddle his shaky, fuzzy footage. He meets news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo), who likes his eye and promises him more pay for more film. If it bleeds, it leads. Lou then hires Rick (Riz Ahmed), a desperate kid who agrees to navigate their way to crime scenes for $30 a night. And like that, Lou is a Nightcrawler.

Nightcrawler is the classic Los Angeles story about a life-long struggle for the big opportunity. Lou Bloom is a modern Gatsby, self-educated and desperate to shape the world in his image. Nearly all of his dialogue consists of impersonal, dogmatic business-speak. Turns out he's been spending nearly all of his time soaking in online management courses and researching best practices for success. The difference between Lou and your typical businessman jagoff is that he actually believes it. He has an inspired, singular vision. There is no cynicism. No sly smile. He is no Wolf of Wall Street. This is not about getting one over on the little guy or exploiting the suburban mom's fears of the minority criminal (a view clearly articulated by Nina). It's about fair work for fair pay. If Lou works hard to get close-up footage of a toddler's stabbing, he should be rewarded. Want a wide angle of a three-alarm fire? Let's agree on a price. He becomes an expert negotiator who feels no compulsion to put on societal niceties. There are no morality judgments or ethical debates. Get in his way or bring any negative energy to the party, and you'll be quickly dismissed. It's the kind of biting sociopathy that we all pretend to be afraid of. Think for a second, though. This is America. We were built on this.

Jake Gyllenhaal's performance will get plenty of notoriety, and it's all well-earned. Comparisons to Robert De Niro's turn as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver are not unwarranted. Both characters are fed up with going unnoticed. They refuse to conform to the standards set by the rest of us. We should be meeting their standards. Remember De Niro's monologues about the filth in the street and all that? Gyllenhaal does that with his eyes in this film. A glance. A stare. Who are you, and why are you this way? What do you mean, you want a raise? We already discussed salary. The police want to talk to me again? I clearly explained why I was at the crime scene. He's a parasite who manages to make us feel like we're invading his space. It's easy for an actor to remove emotion from his face, but Mr. Gyllenhaal appears to have removed it from his soul. It's truly remarkable stuff that, when combined with his work in last year's Enemy, should finally remove the "underrated" honorific from his resume.

Notice also that the film barely comments on the crimes themselves or the lives they ruin. They're incidental. Background noise. They're not the point. This is Los Angeles, after all, and the film's morality is as subjective as the world its characters populate. Lou coerces Nina into sex to cement a business connection. Perversion? More like necessary items on the checklist. What does he do when he reaches a fatal car crash before the police? He positions the body in the best angle for his shot, of course. He plays with peoples lives without remorse. He never once asks a bleeding victim how they're doing or to hold-on-the-ambulence-is-almost-here. And sure, we can judge Lou in all his grotesqueness, but if we can't turn away from his gruesome footage on the morning news, who's really in the wrong? Don't we instinctively reach for our cameras when we see a disaster?

It's only at the end of the film that we realize Lou is completely emblematic of the nature of media and our collective lack of empathy. We never see Lou tortured by his humanity. He leaves that for the rest of us. The film's thesis is brought home when Lou brings gruesomely graphic video of a triple-murder to KWLA. Some of the producers are alarmed and frantically measure their journalistic integrity, but all Lou and Nina see are blockbuster sweeps ratings. A suspicious detective (Michael Hyatt) sniffs around a bit, but is Lou breaking any laws? What would they arrest him for, feeding our morbid curiosity? This film is so flippant with basic human dignity that all we can do is laugh. It knows exactly how it feels about its protagonist and doesn't care what we think of him. Leave your complaints if you want. Lou will ignore them later. 

It's hard to believe that this is Mr. Gilroy's directorial debut. Nightcrawler is a confident film, never wavering on its tone or purpose. The photography is lush and detailed. Los Angeles, warts and all, is the co-star. The plot is narrowly-focused and perfectly paced. There are no superfluous characters or needless scenes. Most character studies are nebulous and free-flowing, mixing in odd-and-end experiences to "flesh things out," but this film is tightly-wound and endlessly thrilling. At the risk of public shaming, I can't say I admire Lou Bloom, but I will say that Nightcrawler is less a story about a rampaging sociopath than it is a story about the world that allows him to exist in the first place. Sleep tight. 


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