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Nightcrawler Review: In the Night comes an Oscar
Passion, motivation and determination are three traits that any parent or tutor would wish for their child/pupil to have, so they can build healthy relationships and have a safe and stable life; however, in the case of Jake Gyllenhaal’s sociopathic Lou Bloom, those three traits are, well, used in a slightly different way. We watch him manipulate and deceive his colleagues as he works his way up the ladder of a local news station in Los Angeles by handing in shocking pieces of footage from a variety of different crimes that have taken place at night. This debut film, Nightcrawler, by director/writer Dan Gilroy is a smart satire, one of those rare flicks which actually blends style with substance so that you’re left with not only one of the most memorable lunatics to appear on film, but a commentary on how we view news stories today.
I’m sure you’ve gotten the idea already, but to emphasize again that Bloom is not all ‘there’ mentally is an understatement. From the very first scene we get a pretty good idea how far this character is willing to go so he can reach the top of the mountain. We watch Bloom start as a loser who you might feel sorry for, as he’s been reduced to stealing from construction sites, and then selling the goods on to local pawn shops. However, as he is passing a horrific car crash on a freeway, he pulls over to find Bill Paxton’s character, Joe Loder, sneaking up on the scene and filming the whole thing. Loder informs Bloom that “If it bleeds, it leads.” This exchange leaves Bloom curious as to what this world has to offer him.
From that point, Bloom finds he has a bit of talent for the night time crime scene as he films crimes ranging from car crashes, murders, and robberies which he hands in to a fading morning news director (Nina) played by Rene Russo, who, like Bloom, wants to reach the top of the mountain. She allows herself to be manipulated by him, because like most of the characters in the film, she is desperate. So, with Bloom gaining the upper hand, he sets out with his homeless assistant called Rick, played by British actor Riz Ahmed, to try and one day make enough money to start his own company, but first he has to “make enough money to buy a ticket.”
It may seem daunting to watch a character for two hours that you wouldn’t ever want to meet at any time of day, but that’s what makes Lou Bloom’s and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performances so special. You can’t stop concentrating on each scene, as you don’t know what he has up his sleeve next. The tension, his wide eyes, greasy slicked back hair and slumped shoulders make it unbearable at times. We never really learn much about Bloom’s past, and that’s what makes his character so separate from us . . . humans. He’s like an alien who’s fallen to Earth only a couple of months ago, and is learning how to survive in an already harsh and cut-throat world. Every word he says is like he’s read it straight out of some self help manual, or random internet article. He never sleeps, and his childlike humor emphasizes the point that he may just be learning how to be human and deal with emotions; however, empathy is something that will never sit right with Bloom, unless one day he reads that you need empathy to be successful in a business environment – then he may take notice. For Gyllenhaal, despite all his great performances recently (like in Enemy, and Prisoners) this one is his biggest standout yet and – possibly – if the Academy is willing, an Oscar could be in the cards for him.
It’s not just the dialogue and character arc that makes Nightcrawler so fascinating, the rest of the cast of characters all contribute to Bloom’s character as they play off of his personality and allow for us to care about the more ‘human’ characters. The sympathetic and subtle performance by Riz Ahmed is a real surprise for me, he’s already shown in the British comedy, Four Lions, that he can mix comedy with a slice of drama, but here he portrays someone who is caught in Bloom’s web of false promises and manages to be both believable, and make us want to root for him. Similarly, Rene Russo, even though she’s on the other end of the social scale to Ahmed’s character, they are both very similar as they share the fact that they are very desperate people, hence making them relatable to men and women everywhere, who are struggling to either get jobs or keep them.
I have mentioned the writing as being of a very high level before, but Dan Gilroy really does deserve a special mention. His career up till now has mostly been at the end of a pen, as his previous writing gigs have been on films such as Real Steel, and The Bourne Legacy, and you may remember those two films as mainly plot-driven affairs, with character development more in the background. However, Nightcrawler is not anything like those last two Gilroy screenplays: this is a full-on character driven plot that focuses on this triangle of characters that play off each other’s motivations so they can try and make their own gains. That all adds to the social commentary that’s present throughout, as Gilroy is keen to point out that media journalism today is keener on whether it will bolster their channel views rather than if what they’re showing is morally right; because many people in today’s society are keen to watch these crimes on social media or TV, but are not considering the families’ privacy or emotional state. That, in essence, is why Gilroy created Bloom: a well oiled machine, who is more concerned about if he got the right camera angle, rather than check to see if the victim is all right.
Even though this is one of the most original films in the past five years, there are some inspirations you can see in Nightcrawler, like American Psycho’s way of having the main character create their own mottos and ideas on society. While another example that springs to mind is The Man Who Fell to Earth, where David Bowie’s character had come to collect water for his dying planet so he could return to the place he belonged, and Bloom is similar in this way: money for Bloom is like Bowie’s water, in that he seems to want to make as much as possible, so his character has some kind of ‘worth’ to a society.
The one, possibly jarring, factor for many who watch this is the many shifts in tone, and the fact that the soundtrack constantly plays more ‘hopeful’ notes in scenes that should be sad. This is simply another factor that makes this film smarter than the average flick, because as this is a character driven plot, the tone seems to shift with Bloom’s way of thinking. If he wants to manipulate someone, then the tone might be darker, while when he is in the middle of gaining some very valuable footage, the tone may shift to be more hopeful, like the soundtrack would do. This film isn’t from the crime scenes’ point of view, where for example in a family drama a couple of people have died in a car accident – this would result in there being slow, tear-inducing music, but because this is a character study of Bloom’s mind, it is from his point of view, so this kind of accident is fantastic for him. This accident is just another news story that he can sell to the station; hence why it has hopeful music, and a shift in tone.
So, the score and writing can always set an exciting or tension-filled tone, but if you have gorgeous and epiphany inducing cinematography, that will always add to proceedings. Robert Elswit, the film’s cinematographer should get all the praise when it comes to the film’s capture of late night L.A. as the scenery chosen is a perfect suite to the shifts in tone. Where you might get shots of a rundown theme park at the beginning of the film to complement Bloom’s lower place in society, as his quest becomes more triumphant the scenery changes to more colorful and vibrant scenery of maybe a multicolored Ferris wheel. This kind of cinematography hasn’t been captured as well since other late night L.A. films like Collateral and Drive, so I wouldn’t be half surprised to see Elswit’s name in Best Achievement in Cinematography come Oscar season.
Nightcrawler is one of those very rare films that successfully mixes art-house and mainstream storytelling so it will, no doubt, bring those two types of audiences into theaters, and it should, because who wouldn’t want to see a film as good looking, superbly acted and well constructed as this gem.
Nightcrawler, for all it shows us about late night journalism, also reminds us why these kinds of middle budget films should be going into production more often.
Let’s hope that Dan Gilroy will continue down this avenue, and have a directing/writing career that can keep this level of consistency because, yes, he has made the money to buy a ticket to win the lottery.