Friday, November 7, 2014

'Nightcrawler' (2014) directed by Dan Gilroy

"If it bleeds, it leads".  This motto runs through Nightcrawler like the message in a stick of rock.  Night in the big city transforms the environment into darkness punctuated by pools of of light: the halogen glow of the asphalt, primary coloured neon advertising, sickly orange street lights and, every few minutes, a scrawl of blue and red flashing emergency lights.  It's those last ones where we sit up and take interest.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an unemployed, amoral, unlikeable loser.  We first meet him stealing a chain link fence to sell to a scrap yard for a couple of bucks.  Desperate he tries to sell his services to the yard boss, explaining that he's a hard, conscientious worker, as well as a quick learner.  He's quickly rebuffed; "Why would I want to hire a thief?"  Good point.

Disconsolately driving home he spots a traffic accident.  Drawn to it like a moth to a flame he's transfixed by a woman bleeding to death on the hard shoulder, her shattered car burning behind her.  Rushing up behind him comes Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), who films the accident and sells the tape to TV news.  His operation is called Mayhem News and he makes his living as a 'nightcrawler'.  Impressed by the job Bloom quizzes Loder, almost instantly coming to the conclusion that this is the job for him.

And so he sits on the side of the road, ears peeled to the distorted chatter of police dispatch, listening for gory accidents, violent crime and structural fires - preferably oozing tears, blood and guts.  Very quickly it becomes apparent that Bloom has found his calling, his lack of empathy an advantage in getting the shots that most reporters would balk at.  He sticks his camera in the faces of dying men, sneaks into murder scenes and even begins moving bodies to create better shots.  His sensational footage is lapped up by news producer Nina Romano (Rene Russo) and, with a nervy assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) he claws his way towards success over the backs of dead men.

Nightcrawler belongs to a long line of cinematic critiques of press sensationalism.  Hungry for the next big scoop, desperate journalists will ignore all boundaries, legal, moral and physical to get their story.  There's a through line of cinematic DNA that runs through Billy Wilder's Ace In The Hole, Network and Broadcast News, all of which explore the problem of having to produce a daily news show that balances informing and entertaining, feeding the public's rubbernecking lust for graphic carnage under the guise of reporting fictional crimewaves.

This makes Nightcrawler's characters pretty familiar archetypes.  You have the numbed TV careerist whose moral boundaries have long eroded away in a quest for ratings, the disapproving arbiter of journalistic standards who queries whether gore and death are news, the vain and airheaded anchors who repeat what they're told and, in the centre of this whirlpool, a hero whose soul is destroyed by greed.

The twist here is that Lou Bloom doesn't have a soul.  A gaunt Gyllenhaal, with sunken cheeks and eyes the size of cue balls, plays Bloom as a scarily intense creep without a conscience, empathy or any respect for his fellow man.  He appears to have no normal life, no friends or family and meagre possessions - the only thing we see him caring for is a houseplant.  This, coupled with his nocturnal existence, makes him an all too plausible vampire, swooping through the night and craving the blood of the innocent.

As cinema sociopaths go Bloom is one that's going to lodge in the memory.  His malformed personality is a warped reflection of the capitalistic ideal.  He chatters endlessly about business growth, managerial technique and is constantly engaged in endless financial negotiations.  Bloom reduces every single person he meets to a cog in his financial machine, assessing their monetary worth to him and ruthlessly exploiting it.  

A couple of characters mention that Bloom just doesn't understand people.  They're wrong - he's dangerous because he understands people perfectly.  He knows what they want to see, how much they're willing to give him for that and precisely how to manipulate them into doing what he wants.  As soon as he's introduced to the world of TV news he realises that it's an environment he can prosper in - where human experiences captured on film can be instantly monetised.  So he's a monster, but he's a logically created monster, the embodiment of rapacious, predatory capitalism that literally trades in human misery.

In a slippery moral twist, writer/director Dan Gilroy can't quite find it in himself to outright criticise Bloom.  Working from the maxim, "don't hate the playa, hate the game", Gilroy treats Bloom as the logical conclusion to the industry he works in and the free market society he lives in.  That said, if he did openly criticise his protagonist he'd be a big fat hypocrite. There's a queasy duality in watching a rapt Bloom scurrying from corpse to corpse, taking care to beautifully frame each within his shots.  In turn Gilroy's camera follows Bloom, as much enjoying shooting this carnage as he is.  In turn we lap up the carnage, eagerly awaiting what splattered mess Gilroy is going to serve up next.

Considering that Bloom takes pride in his cinematography and lighting it's entirely appropriate that Gilroy and his D.O.P. Robert Elswit do the same.  The L.A. night is smeared with bright colour, reminiscent of Only God Forgives or Spring Breakers - highly saturated primary tones jumping out of the darkness.  Throughout it's astonishing to look at, their palette and framing choices allowing stylistic nudges like Gyllenhaal's features becoming a skull, or his hunched silhouette a vulture crouched over a carcass.

It's a hell of a film from top to bottom.  This could be a career best performance from Gyllenhaal, who grabs our attention in minute one and doesn't let up until the credits roll. Riz Ahmed and Rene Russo similarly impress, though each merely reacts to the compelling moral black hole that Lou Bloom represents.  Dan Gilroy was already an accomplished writer, but Nightcrawler marks him down as a director to keep a seriously close eye on.


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