Sunday, December 28, 2014


Alternate Title:  Director in the Dark

One sentence synopsis:    A sociopath tries to strike it big as a freelance news cameraman chasing crime and accident stories in nocturnal Los Angeles.

Things Havoc liked: I give up.  I surrender.  My hypocrisy only goes so far.  Jake Gyllenhaal is a good actor.  And I enjoy watching him in movies.  Are you happy now?!

I have a series of actors that I have no use for, and many of them have featured on this little project before.  Vincent D'onofrio.  Jennifer Garner.  Anybody commonly associated with Tyler Perry.  Gyllenhaal was, for many years, a featured player on my list, probably due to his roles as a teenager and young man in such dreck as The Day After Tomorrow, October Sky, Prince of Persia, and Donnie Darko (yeah, I said it!)  But like Joshua Gordon Levitt before him, Gyllenhaal just kept making movies.  Good movies.  Movies like Source Code and Zodiac and End of Watch.  And there's only so many movies I can enjoy by someone before I can't maintain the fiction anymore.  There was a time when Leonardo DiCaprio was that whining little snot from Titanic, after all.

Nightcrawler, a character study by first-time director Dan Gilroy, is a tight, careful film, focused relentlessly on one of the weirder characters I've seen this year.  Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an strange, socially-stunted sociopath, a man who apes and analyzes the emotional reactions of the people around him more than he shares them.  This is a concept that has been explored before, most notably perhaps in the Showtime series Dexter, save that here the character is not a serial killer but a "nightcrawler", a freelance news cameraman who spends his nights seeking out footage of accidents, crime, or bloodshed to sell to morning news channels, the gorier and "rawer", the better.  This is not an occupation that lends itself well to a balanced emotional state to begin with, and Lou takes to it like a duck to water, starting out with a single camcorder and winding up with a full-fledged production studio, assisted along the way by his absolute lack of fear, a head full of self-empowerment business slogans, and a complete antipathy to social norms that would normally restrain someone from filming the dying or worse.

And that's really all there is to it.  Nightcrawler, like Taxi Driver before it (or this year's Locke) is a movie that is about one subject, and which seeks nothing beyond chronicling his career wherever it goes.  There are, of course, other characters he encounters, most notably Riz Ahmed playing Rick, an out-of-work latino laborer whom Gyllenhaal recruits as a navigator and secondary cameraman, who only slowly grows to realize just who he has begun moonlighting for.  But Gyllenhaal is front and center here, a thin, wiry figure who manages nonetheless to evoke a great deal of presence by the sheer absence of regular social norms that he evidences.  This is not to say that he is awkward, indeed like many real sociopaths, he is charming and witty when the occasion calls for it.  But it is visibly all an act, and when the occasion calls for it, the frankly predatory side of his persona comes bubbling to the fore with impressive facility.  Never does Gyllenhaal go completely wild-eyed maniac, but you can, at most times, see the possibility of it within him, as though at any moment he is engaged in cold calculation as to whether he is liable to get the best results from a smile and a witty remark, or from an act of inhuman violence.  Either one is fine by him.

Things Havoc disliked: Gyllenhaal I have finally come around to, but the same is not true of every actor or actress I dislike, and so we get to Rene Russo, whom I have liked more and more as she has done fewer and fewer things.  About the limit of my tolerance for her was as Freya, wife of Odin, in the Thor movies, a role which required only a few short scenes and nothing more.  As a full-fledged character, Russo isn't terrible, but she is playing a pastiche of a cliche, a news director for a struggling TV station who is willing to do "anything" to get the footage she needs.  Russo does her best to conjure up the required desperation for a role like this, but she comes across like she's reading cue cards, as she flip-flops from a hard-assed news reporter to a vulnerable victim in the schemes of our main protagonist.  She also has the unenviable task of playing stand-in for the author once it comes time to soapbox windily about how ethical the news "used to be", and how things are "so different now" because we live in a fallen age and blah blah blah.  A tertiary character (Mad Men's Kevin Rahm) exists solely to pop up every so often to recite windy dialogue about how Russo has abandoned her conscience and done terrible things.  Fine, I suppose there's something to be said there.  But then the film decides that it's not enough Russo show no ethics, she has to do stupid things for the sake of increasing her own crepulence, including giving up on the chance to be the first to break a huge story so that she can smash more gore into her lineup.  I have no doubt there are news directors who act this way, but most of them don't last long when they start confusing the quest for violence with the quest for money, the latter of which is the real Holy Grail of media.

Final thoughts:   I actually enjoyed Nightcrawler considerably more than I expected to, as the movie, despite a fairly short horizon, manages to generate a sufficiently deranged atmosphere (something Los Angeles is always good at generating) that despite the manifestly evil things Lou is doing, you have a perverse desire to continue watching him do them.  The last 45 minutes or so is an escalating lesson in proper suspense-crafting, not from any of the old standbys of Killer-in-the-house or whatnot, but from Hitchcock's old saw that when a bomb under a table goes off, it is action, and when it does not, it is suspense.  The film's ambitions of being a biting media satire hold it back, particularly when it starts to get preachy about the good-old-days, but as a character study and a vehicle for Gyllenhaal to act creepy and weird, it has very little to speak against it.  And while there's still something about Gyllenhaal that just rubs me the wrong way, it's gotten increasingly hard for me to defend a dislike for an actor that keeps turning in good performance after good performance.

Eventually, it seems, even my ego has its limits.

Final Score:  7/10

Next Week:  The most British man in the world plays the most British man in the world.

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