Friday, October 31, 2014

In Theaters: NIGHTCRAWLER (2014)

(US - 2014)

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed, Kevin Rahm, Michael Hyatt, Price Carson, Ann Cusack, Chad Guerrero, Jamie McShane. (R, 117 mins)

When it was shown at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival, the buzz on NIGHTCRAWLER was that it was a NETWORK and a TAXI DRIVER for today's media. While it does take place in the high-pressure world of TV news and the central character is twitchy and unstable loner who lives in a tiny apartment and just needs a little nudge to go over the edge, the comparisons were to the wrong films. NIGHTCRAWLER is more of an ACE IN THE HOLE for the TMZ and cable news generation.  And Jake Gyllenhaal's wiry, sociopathic Louis Bloom is cut from the same cloth as vintage Robert De Niro, but with his smug and endless recitation of self-help platitudes and self-aggrandizing salesman jargon, he's more akin to THE KING OF COMEDY's Rupert Pupkin than TAXI DRIVER's Travis Bickle. It's a committed performance--he lost 20 lbs for the role and just looks creepy and greasy--and the latest in a series of outside-the-box projects for Gyllenhaal, following his work in PRISONERS (where his detective character was more interesting and complex than Hugh Jackman's central one) and the Cronenberg-esque ENEMY.  For an actor who could just as easily keep doing franchise gigs like PRINCE OF PERSIA or romantic comedies like LOVE & OTHER DRUGS, Gyllenhaal seems to be deliberately avoiding formulaic commercial assignments. I'm not saying he's the most gifted actor of his generation, but over the last few years, he's certainly proving himself to be one of the most serious and most interested in challenging himself.

NIGHTCRAWLER opens with skeezy L.A. denizen Bloom stealing some chain-link fencing and copper wire from a railyard and helping himself to a security guard's expensive watch after knocking him out in a scuffle. Denied a job by the scrapyard owner after presenting himself in the most grating and pushy way imaginable ("I don't hire fuckin' thieves," says the guy buying stolen copper wire), Louis heads home but stops by a car accident on the freeway where he observes Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a freelance videographer, at work. Loder, a "Nightcrawler," arrives at accidents and crime scenes and sells the footage to the highest bidder. Seeing easy money, Louis steals an expensive bike and pawns it for a video camera and a police scanner, and after some initially fumbling attempts, starts honing his skills and eventually sells his first bit of footage--of a battered, bloodied car accident victim dying as paramedics work on him--to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the graveyard-shift news director at the lowest-rated station in L.A. Pressed by Nina's accolades over his work, Louis gets more ambitious, hiring an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), and earning enough to buy a new car and more expensive recording equipment. Before long, he's beating Loder at his own game and becomes the city's top Nightcrawler, providing Nina with the kind of sensationalistic footage that brings attention and ratings to the station. But that's not enough for Louis, who soon begins arriving at calls before the cops, with enough time to reposition bodies to make for a better visual presentation. When he arrives at a home invasion before the cops and sees the perps leaving, getting a clear shot of them and their license plate, Louis sits on the footage and starts following the men around. This was the latest in a series of similar incidents and Louis' plan is to catch them in the act and call the cops at the last possible moment so he can be both there to record the events as they unfold and be the hero helped nab the bad guys.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy (brother of MICHAEL CLAYTON writer/director Tony Gilroy) provides a sterling showcase for Gyllenhaal, who turns in a mannered yet never overdone performance as the reptilian Louis. It's tough to sell a film centered on someone so repulsive (even the way he laughs at Danny Kaye's THE COURT JESTER on TV is unsettling), but Gyllenhaal is outstanding. NIGHTCRAWLER is, at its core, a black comedy, but Gilroy doesn't do it any favors when he occasionally delves into self-serious statement-making. He seems to think he's blowing the doors off some earnestly antiquated notion that TV news isn't about sensationalism and ratings. "If it bleeds, it leads" is too old-fashioned for these vipers.  To Nina, the news is about white, suburban, well-off people. "Nobody cares what happens in poor neighborhoods," she says, adding that her ideal news image is of "a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut." Nina knows Louis is an unethical shitbag (even dismissing a news editor who points out that Louis got at least one piece of footage by entering someone's home without permission), but she wants the notoriety--she's washed-up, getting old, and TV news is a young person's game. If the film has any NETWORK analogies, it's in imagining Russo's portrayal of Nina as how things might've turned out for Faye Dunaway's Diana Christensen a few decades and several rungs down the ladder later. Nina is so desperate to keep her job that she even allows herself to essentially be sexually extorted when Louis demands more money and threatens to take his footage elsewhere ("My lowest price is what I want to be paid!" he demands after one negotiation, "and I want you to do the things I tell you to do when we're alone in your apartment together!"). The codependent interaction between a pair of pathetic bottom-feeders like Louis and Nina provides some of NIGHTCRAWLER's most interesting and uncomfortable scenes, and it's nice to see the semi-retired Russo (who's married to Gilroy) in her first substantial, non-THOR role in almost a decade.

A lot of NIGHTCRAWLER's points are obvious and the film isn't as substantive as it could or should be. ACE IN THE HOLE was a lot more hard-hitting 63 years ago because media oversaturation wasn't so ubiquitous. And NETWORK was a satire with entirely too many elements that have become alarmingly real over the last four decades. But today, unscrupulous media whores--many of whom are behind a news desk, using it as a pulpit--vie for around-the-clock viewer attention. In an era of partisan hackery and news-as-entertainment, it's hardly shocking to see a "news" figure manipulating a story to give himself an advantage or to suit a narrative, or to witness a desperate news director running with it, ethics-be-damned, so they stick out from the crowd. The world's a bit more cynical than it was when Billy Wilder made ACE IN THE HOLE in 1951 or when Paddy Chayefsky wrote NETWORK in 1976, and as outrageous as Louis' behavior is throughout NIGHTCRAWLER, none of it is very surprising. After an episodic first hour, Gilroy does settle into a groove and NIGHTCRAWLER becomes a solid, nail-biting thriller as Louis and an increasingly reluctant Rick start following the home-invasion perps. While it's uneven and not the media-condemning Truth Bomb that Gilroy probably imagines it to be and likely not something that mainstream multiplexers are going to embrace, the frequently-inspired NIGHTCRAWLER is powered by an intense Gyllenhaal. And it does earn one legitimate TAXI DRIVER comparison in the way cinematographer Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) captures the foreboding essence of a big city at night. While 2014 Los Angeles after dark isn't quite as flavorful as 1976 NYC, it does have its own unique aura that other films (DRIVE being a great recent example) have presented just as effectively, but in an era with an increasing reliance of greenscreen and digital compositing, the utilization of actual location shooting does make a vital difference in the visual presentation and in establishing the living, breathing mood and feel of a film.

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