NightcrawlerReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/30/14 15:56:16
"Nightcrawler" may share its name with a second-tier character from the "X-Men" universe but anyone showing up at the multiplex expecting the usual superhero histrionics is bound to come away from it feeling disappointed, along with anyone who is partial to such arcane concepts as subtlety or plausibility. No, this is a dark and satirical drama that dares to expose the seedy underbelly of contemporary media that wants to do for the TMZ generation what films like "Network" and "Natural Born Killers" did for the news gathering approaches of their respective eras. Alas, its efforts are somewhat undermined by a relentlessly self-serious and hectoring tone, a general lack of plausibility and a central performance so twitchily over-the-top that all one can do is just stare at it and think "Really?"Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an exceptionally creepy creature of the L.A. night--when we first see him, he is attempting to steal chain-link fence and copper wire from a construction site for resale and when a security guard happens along, he brutally mugs the guy and makes off with his watch as well. Although a bottom-feeder of the worst kind, he is an ambitious sort and after selling the fencing to a junkyard, he tries to wheedle his way into a job or, when informed that they aren't hiring, perhaps an internship. While driving home one night, he comes across a car crash and stops to gawk when a freelance video crew, led by hotshot cameraman Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), turns up to film the carnage in order to sell it to the highest bidder among the local TV stations. Duly inspired, Louis acquires a camera and a police scanner--don't ask how--and decides to go into business for himself shooting late-night atrocities. His first attempts do not go very well--he tries to film someone taking a DUI test--but he eventually strikes gold when his willingness to linger upon a carjacking victim bleeding out catches the eye of Nina (Rene Russo), the news producer at the lowest rated station in town. She buys his footage and asks for more, gently suggesting to him that the ideal footage depicts "urban crime creeping into the suburbs"--in other words, well-to-do white people suffering the same kind of violence that hardly merits any attention when committed against blacks and Hispanics in the city--though there will always be a place for gruesome crash footage.
Unsurprisingly, Louis demonstrates an unusual aptitude for the job--it is a situation where his overt lack of empathy or interest in humanity in general is an asset rather than a liability--and his willingness to bend the already-loose rules of the game (such as sneaking into crime scenes and rearranging certain elements in order to improve the visuals) produces footage that is either spectacular or spectacularly repellent, depending on which side of the fence you are on. As a result, Louis becomes a success in his field--he is even able to hire an assistant (Riz Ahmed), ostensibly to help him cut down on response times but mostly to have someone to boss around at length--but his increasing ambitions begin to inspire him to take crazier risks. Whereas he was once content to merely rearrange a few refrigerator photos for a touching shot, he is now willing to move the body of a car crash victim at a site where he is the first on the scene in order to get a better visual. When he still finds himself in conflict with Joe, he finds a way to simultaneously rid himself of his immediate competition and make a few bucks off of it as well. When he arrives at the site of a violent home invasion so early that the perpetrators themselves haven't left yet, he not only slips into the house to record the gory aftermath but uses his footage of the perpetrators, which he holds from the police, to help orchestrate another potential crime scene that he will then capture in all its grisly glory.
Combining a slick and violent visual style capturing the seedy underbelly of the City of Angels after dark with a screenplay underlining the monstrous nature of contemporary American media, "Nightcrawler" feels like what might have resulted if Michael Mann and Paddy Chayefsky had ever gotten a chance to combine their talents. It becomes abundantly clear quite quickly, however, that writer/debuting director Dan Gilroy is no Mann nor Chayefsky by any stretch of the imagination. Gilroy clearly wants his film to be considered as a kind of companion piece to "Network" in ways both big (in its general indictment of the world of contemporary news broadcasting) and small (with Nina standing in as a version of the Faye Dunaway character who has seen the industry blow past her own cynical excesses and is clinging on to her last chance in the industry like the grim death that may serve as her salvation) but while I am not a particularly big fan of the overrated "Network" (just because a film is prophetic doesn't mean that it is still a sour and insight-free work that somehow manages to be overdone and half-baked at the same time), it is nevertheless a far more incisive take on the topic than what he has accomplished here.
Like Chayefsky, Gilroy deploys his talking points with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the toes but unlike Chayefsky, who certainly knew how to write big and sweeping speeches for his characters outlining those points in a superficially entertaining manner (even if they always came across as too overly written to be believable as anything a person might actually say in real life), Gilroy comes up with dialogue and situations that are so clunky that they beggar belief. (I realize that "If it bleeds, it leads" is a common news industry axiom but to actually have a character say it in casual conversation as though it were some kind of profound insight is ridiculous.) Additionally, the situations that Gilroy depicts are so overblown that any shred of plausibility gets lost amidst the excess--the footage that Louis turns in is so ethically dubious and so grisly that it is impossible to believe that even the most desperate television station would deign to show it, especially in the manner displayed here. Worst of all is the sense that Gilroy thinks that he is offering up some grand indictment of the news industry even though the increasingly media-savvy audience is unlikely to be gasping in shock that news footage is sometimes manipulated for maximum emotional effect--hell, the ending of "Broadcast News" hinged on that very concept. If the film had displayed some slight sense of humor about itself, it might have made the proceedings a little more palatable but Gilroy handles everything with such a heavy-handed and self-serious manner that the whole thing is closer to excruciating than exciting.
Then there is the performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, a turn that is so singular that I am still at a loss of how to deal with it. The character of Louis is, of course, an unlikable scumbag of the first order--one of those guys who actually gets creepier the more that they try to act "normal"--but Gyllenhaal pushes things to such an extreme that even Rupert Pupkin (whom Louis does resemble in certain ways) might have gotten a serious case of the heebie-jeebies after encountering him. With his greasy hair, bony frame and oddball manner, Louis comes across as though he has been possessed by an alien who hasn't quite mastered the art of acting human. This is certainly an interesting choice and one has to given Gyllenhaal credit for making these bold choices and taking them as far as he can go with them--pretty far, as it turns out--but he is such a bizarre creep right from the start that it throws the entire film out of balance because it is impossible to believe that the ostensibly saner characters in the story would continue to want to have anything to do with him instead of running for the hills on even the hint that he might be in the area. This is not exactly a bad turn by Gyllenhaal but it is an ultimately misconceived one that attempts to meet the excesses of the narrative and just adds another level of implausibility to the proceedings."Nightcrawler" is not a total washout--if nothing else, it has an alluringly sickly visual style courtesy of cinematographer Robert Elswit that catches the eye--and the strain of unapologetic and unrepentant nihilism running through it may find a degree of favor with certain audiences. However, for the most part, this is a film that may not have much to say when all is said and done and which unsuccessfully tries to cover that up by pitching what it does have to say to the rafters and beyond. Funny how a film about how the news tries to compensate for its general lack of anything new or interesting to say with cynicism and heavy bloodshed should itself succumb to those exact same impulses.
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