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NIGHTCRAWLER (2014) review

November 2, 2014

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written by: Dan Gilroy
produced by: Jennifer Fox, Jake Gyllenhaal, Tony Gilroy, David Lancaster & Michael Litvak
directed by: Dan Gilroy
rating: R (for violence, including graphic images, and for language)
runtime: 117 min.
U.S. release date: October 31, 2014

 

Louis Bloom. Louis Bloom is a name that will stick out when we look back on the films of 2014. Hard-working and observant, Louis Bloom is a quick learner with an absorbent mind for self-improvement techniques. He’s also kind of odd, socially awkward and a persuasive sociopath. The character is portrayed by one of the most talented young actors working today, one who seems to be taking on quite a transformative assortment of roles in the last several years. The film is “Nightcrawler” and its the absorbing, fascinating and unnerving directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy.

It’s not just a thrilling look at a subculture we’ve rarely seen explored on-screen, the film examines how focused ambition and the pursuit of adulation blindly pursued with no moral regard, can lead to some dark and disturbing places. It’s a sickening reminder of the depraved and immoral material that passes for television news and how desensitized and accepting society is of it.

Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is our guide, taking us throughout Los Angeles; from late night to the wee small hours of the morning. We first meet him as a petty thief, stealing scrap metal, copper wire and manhole lids for chump change. When a security guard catches him in the act, Bloom notices the guard is wearing a nice watch. He physically accosts the guard and takes the watch. It’s the first sign that Bloom wants what he’s focused on, regardless of the circumstances or method and it provides us with an inclination of what little regard he has for the lives of others.

 

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He wants more out of life though. He feels he’s worthy of more. He believes in himself and knows how to sell himself well. Bloom has put his online studying to memory and can rattle off the virtues of a strong work ethic and is able to describe the steps it takes to create and maintain a successful business. He has no job though and despite his willingness to make it big in any vocation, all he’s received is rejection. Employers see him for who he is, not who Bloom knows he can be.

While driving on the 110 one night, Bloom pulls over and gets out of his vehicle to witness first responders helping a woman out of her burning car. He is transfixed by the scene and notices a van that has pulled over as well. Out comes two focused individuals with high-tech camcorders, documenting the rescue right next to the blazing car. Bloom is exhilarated by this and learns they are ‘nightcrawlers’, those who record footage or accidents and crime scenes and sell it off to local news sources. He has found his calling.

After pawning a stolen racing bicycle for a police scanner and a camcorder, Bloom sets out to test his mettle on any breaking news that comes up. In his effort to build a reputation amid veterans such as Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), Bloom’s obvious inexperience finds him frustrating emergency professionals and almost running over an injured victim with his car. None of this is noticed by Bloom though. The effect of his actions and behavior just don’t register. His sole focus is the chaotic scene of the accident or crime.

It doesn’t take long for Bloom to capture footage worthy of air time. His obtrusive close-ups of a shooting victim on a stretcher is accepted by news director, Nina Romina (a fantastic Rene Russo), whose morning news program is desperate for shocking reports. She strikes a deal with Bloom – he’ll get paid if he can continue to provide his graphic videos but they have to cover urban violence spreading into affluent suburbs. Nina breaks it down for the eager Bloom, explaining her station “like a naked woman screaming down the street with her neck slit”, which makes it very clear what kind of material he needs to seek out.

 

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As his working relationship with Nina progresses, Bloom hires a young drifter named Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant. When Bloom asks him to sell himself during the interview at a cafe, Rick comes up with, “I took three buses to get here.” He’s hired. Rick will navigate as Bloom speeds to each blip on the radar and will position the car for a quick getaway once they arrive while Bloom records the immediate aftermath of a fire or stabbing. With the money Bloom makes, he’s able to upgrade his vehicle and equip it with the latest GPS and scanning devices – all while Rick remains an intern. Again, it’s all about the work for Bloom, not the people.

Nina is impressed with Bloom’s results, but also put off by his tactics as he pressures her into a spot of exclusivity in order to secure his financial demands (and awkwardly frank personal ones) by playing off her own employment insecurities. With each job he takes, Bloom continues to cross the line further and further, whether he’s entering someone’s home uninvited or manipulating crime scenes for a better shot. It escalates when Bloom makes it to a multiple murder scene before police do, hiding outside the residence in the shadows and then entering the scene recording the still-warm dead bodies, all without any regard for the lives he is capturing.

The footage he produces from that location causes friction with just about everyone else at the network, except Nina. All she cares about is whether or not it’s legal to show Bloom’s trespassing work. The ethics and morality of it never enters into the equation. Since they are the first network to air footage from the scene, they immediately come under the scrutiny of two L.A.P.D detectives (Michael Hyatt and Price Carson), who take an interest in Bloom’s work. This flatters Bloom and finds him getting creative with his story and method of work.

 

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“Nightcrawler” is an impressive directorial debut. It’s a tense thriller with the right amount of awkward humor (and horror) that offers one of the most memorable characters of the year. It also indicts the media, particularly newsrooms and their “breaking news” obsessions. This may be something we’ve known for a while, what with the way in which local morning news uses traffic accidents, robberies and murders to headline their programs, but we seldom see the lengths they’ll go to capture and procure the footage that beams off our television screens.

On a technical level, Gilroy benefits from having two veterans cinematographer Robert Elswitt (frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator) and composer James Newton Howard, but Gilroy’s assured handles everything from atmosphere to characterization with a grasp of veteran as well. Directing here from his own screenplay, Gilroy’s experience as a screenwriter (“Real Steal” and “The Bourne Legacy”) has paid off. He doesn’t bother with exposition or any backstory to dumb or slow down his narrative, instead he introduced us to these characters as they are. They aren’t looking back, so why should we?

Most noticeable is how Gilroy gives the unlikeable and disturbing Bloom a particular language that is both odd and magnetic. Obvious it’s all in the way the sublime Gyllenhaal handles the material, but it should be noted that Gilroy’s material stands out. In Gyllenhaal’s hands though, the dialogue pops, using the right amount of unhinged confidence for Bloom that comes across as fascinating and just plain weird. Bloom is an odd character, for sure, but Gyllenhaal has really gone out of his way to keep the character in our memory for a while. He derived his sallow look by losing weight, but his greasy hair, big eyes and uncomfortable smile, along with his sunken posture, attributes to who Bloom is just as much as his actions do. It’s a performance that should get some award buzz, but because of its dark and unflinching nature, I doubt it will.

“Nightcrawler” delivers some specific scenes that will go down as some of the most unforgettable scenes of the year. The conversations we watch are intoxicating, from the interview Bloom has with Rick to the bizarre/uneasy dinner he has with Nina. Watching the actors work off each other in these scenes is funny, incredible and mind-blowing.
Of course, they scenes all revolve around Gyllenhaal’s performance, but it’s Gilroy’s screenplay and direction that play a dynamic part.

Anyone wandering into the theater and deciding to see “Nightcrawler” out-of-the-blue will be quite surprised. This is a jarring experience, but well worth it for the film enthusiast who longs to see all the elements of filmmaking fell in place in a surprising and unpredictable way. I ran through a gamut of responses while watching “Nightcrawler” and, like slowing down to witness an accident on the highway, I’d undoubtedly do it again.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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