Saturday, November 1, 2014

Nightcrawler review

The way in which "Nightcrawler" works is pretty interesting. It has the look and feel of a genre film, but the specificity of its subject matter and its darkly comic tone suggests an entirely different and fresh experience than what you may be used to. Dan Gilroy's debut film follows Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who lives alone, but is not your typical loner type. He's not really a people-person, and as one person points out, he has a weird, robotic way of talking to people.

Lou wants to make a name for himself and is willing to do whatever it takes in order to succeed. In the beginning, we watch him making a dishonest living by stealing from construction sites. But he makes a pretty sudden career change once he finds out he can make money by videotaping crime scenes and selling the footage to a TV news station. Lou soon buys himself a videocamera and dives into the world of video journalism head on. He even manages to get some footage sold pretty quickly and finds himself making a decent living, but is it really an honest one?

Well? Legally, yes. Morally and ethically? Probably not. But this world is very real and Gilroy's film is fascinating in the way it makes us peak behind this ugly curtain. Everyday after we watch our shows, the local news comes on and they show us footage of "the scene of the crime." Well, who's filming that? And how soon after the crash did they get there? How are they getting all these images? As a TV viewer, you don't think about the actual construction of TV journalism, but as "Nightcrawler" shows, the ethics behind it are shaky at best.

What makes "Nightcrawler" work unequivocally, and the reason why it's one of the best movies of the year, is because it's not preachy nor does it try to manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way. Lou Bloom is not a very nice man and has absolutely no qualms about the work that he does. There's a point where Lou gets to the scene of an accident before the police, and moves a presumably dead body just so he can get the perfect shot. That may sound horrible on paper, but you can't help but laugh when you actually watch it unravel. "Nightcrawler," as creepy and unsettling as it is, is a black comedy through and through. There are many moments throughout the film that are just flat out hilarious simply because of how ridiculous this world is. And Gilroy manages to find the perfect balance between proving a point while never losing his cheekiness or his sense of humor.

This isn't a movie to be taken 100% seriously. It's a morality tale, it's not supposed to be wholly realistic. I've seen the movie get compared to "Network" in the way it skewers the media and I agree with that comparison, but "Network" is also broadly satirical and has many humorous moments. If you disliked "Network" and thought it was preachy, you probably won't love "Nightcrawler" either, but if you recognize the darkly humorous quality that "Network" brings, you will get a kick out of this movie. I never thought of "Network" as being a docudrama, the way things play out are pretty clearly melodramatic. "Nightcrawler" isn't as heavy on the melodrama, but it never attempts to suggest that this what the media really is like.

Really, I think what "Nightcrawler" and Dan Gilroy are trying to say is that this is what things could be like or what they could turn into, if we're not careful enough. Lou Bloom is a megalomaniac. He makes it explicit, at one point during the movie, that he doesn't like people. Think of the implications of that. He actually gets a certain amount of joy in the work that he does, when the images he's capturing are horrific. He actually says towards the end of the movie, with a smile on his face: "When people see me, it's usually on the worst day of their life."

What kind of person gets joy out of a job like that? Probably not very many, but what "Nightcrawler" suggests is that this is a road we could go down. Guys like Lou Bloom should not be able to succeed, but they do because we allow him to.

Rene Russo plays Nina, the morning news director that Lou always sells his footage to, the network she works for is always last in the ratings. So, she's desperate for a "hit." Lou's got a unique eye. The footage he brings to the table is shocking and it very much crosses an unspoken line, but Nina knows that, deep down, it's what the people want to see. People love watching TLC or Investigation Discovery, the latter of which is often aptly described as "murder-porn." We love our true crime stories. Why flip it to Investigation Discovery when the local news has a story that's just a juicy and whose footage is just as violent?

As said before, this is Dan Gilroy's debut feature film. Now, this guy's been in the business for quite some time. He's made his living as a screenwriter previously, most famously, he worked with his brother Tony Gilroy on the screenplay for "The Bourne Legacy," which Tony directred. "Nightcrawler," in many ways, is a family affair. Tony Gilroy helped produce, and Dan's other brother John Gilroy edited the film. And last, but not least of all, Rene Russo happens to Dan Gilroy's wife and she plays a prominent part in the movie.

Yes, Dan Gilroy is married to Rene Russo and they have been together for over twenty years. So, when you think about it, Dan was with her all throughout her heyday when she was an A-list actress back in the '90s. What happens to A-list actresses when they're at the top of the game? Paparazzi follows them everywhere. Magazines like Us and People make a living off snapping photos of celebrities. You wonder why Dan Gilroy decided to make his debut feature as a satire of the news media, and being married to Rene Russo gives you a pretty clear answer.

But instead of the writer/director going on the defensive, he crafts this intelligent, genre-y black comedy. Dan Gilroy isn't saying "shame on you, media," in many ways, he's just taking the piss. He's shining a light on some serious issues here and the way he does it is smart. Because the tone of "Nightcrawler" is darkly humorous, it allows the director to really go for it. And this gives Jake Gyllenhaal free reign to take his character to some pretty exciting places.

This is, without a doubt, Jake Gyllenhaal's best performance of his career. He's never been this demented before. Most of Gyllenhaal's previous characters had the aura of being innocent while suggesting that something dark lies beneath. In "Nightcrawler," the innocence is gone. His character is just a full-on asshole, and you know what? He's deliciously fun to watch.

The main cast is capped off by the aforementioned Rene Russo who really gets to show off some serious chops here. I also got a real kick out of Bill Paxton's performance, despite its relative brevity. Paxton plays another freelance cameraman who's been working the game for over a decade. What's brilliant about "Nightcrawler" is that, instead of making Paxton's character become Lou Bloom's mentor, Bloom insists on there being competition between the two of them. Because, why not? We live in a capitalistic society, baby. It's every man for himself.

There are just so many layers in this movie, despite the length of this review, I actually haven't revealed much of anything. "Nightcrawler" is an immensely entertaining film on the most basic level, but it doesn't take much to understand that there's a lot going on in this film than initially meets the eye. This is a movie you revisit time and time again because it's got a lot to say, but it also has the intent on giving the audience a real thrill ride. Seriously, there's a car chase sequence near the end of the film that really kinda comes out of nowhere and it's one of the most electrifying action scenes that I've seen this year.

And above it all, I couldn't possibly end this review without mentioning the exquisite cinematography. Robert Elswit has been behind the lens of several other movies that take place in Los Angeles, but never has he made Los Angeles look as creepy as he does here. Elswit shot the day scenes on 35mm film and the night scenes via digital and the effect is quite fascinating. LA just illuminates in a way that's similar to a Michael Mann film and he really makes the location become a whole other character in itself.

As far as debut features go, this is almost unfair. Dan Gilroy has been a working screenwriter for several decades. He's got two brothers on his side, his talented wife is the co-lead, and he's able to attract a big name like Jake Gyllenhaal whose career is on the rise and cinematographer Robert Elswit, who was practically born to shoot Los Angeles. Gilroy would've really had to try to screw this one up, instead he goes above and beyond what's required of him and makes a hugely entertaining movie that works on every level. This is a tight 120-minute movie that doesn't drag and ends right when it should. "Nightcrawler" simply hits all the right spots.

Grade: A

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