Saturday, November 1, 2014

Review: Nightcrawler

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
If 2013 was all about Matthew McConaughey's reinvention, then this year is the one in which Jake Gyllenhaal took his career in an exciting new direction. Technically, the Gyllensaince began in late 2013 with the criminally underrated "Prisoners" and, to be fair, the actor has always had a knack for landing roles in thoughtful films by great filmmakers ("Zodiac," "Donnie Darko" and "Brokeback Mountain," for example).

This year has so far seen Gyllenhaal's disturbing double take in Denis Villeneuve's creepy "Enemy" and, now, his knockout work as Lou Bloom, the sociopathic news cameraman in Dan Gilroy's debut, "Nightcrawler."

Many of this fall's most talked about movies have, in some form or fashion, taken a stance on the current state of our nation and the role that the media has in it. "Birdman" tackled social media and criticism, while "Gone Girl" presented a cynical, but well earned, vision of a world constantly plugged in, whether it's to exploitative talk shows or taking selfies in front of an establishment possibly owned by a murder. And Jason Reitman's "Men, Women and Children," which was ultimately unsuccessful, tsk-tsked about the internet's role in our lives.

"Nightcrawler" follows Bloom's story as he makes a name for himself as a night-time cameraman who understands that if "it bleeds, it leads." Using a police scanner and, eventually, the assistance of a down-on-his-luck man named Rick (Riz Ahmed), Bloom pops up at the scenes of fires, traffic accidents and horrific crimes, documenting it all with his camera and then selling the footage to a local news station.

Rene Russo is the news anchor who is enticed by Bloom's capacity to be first on the scene and how his lack of ethics allows him to get gruesome footage through means that are not always legal. Her fellow producer - Kevin Rahm ("Mad Men") - on the other hand, sees through Lou and is somewhat repulsed. One of Gilroy's talents as a filmmaker is his ability to convince his audience to be somewhere in between. Much like Bryan Cranston's Walter White, we find Lou's behavior abhorrent - and yet, we don't want to see him get caught.

Gyllenhaal disappears into the role with frightening intensity. Lou strikes a resemblance to Robert De Niro's Rupert Pupkin, but he also has the psychotic tendencies of Travis Bickle. He is the monster our society encourages - he delivers the gruesome goods for those who believe that the news is meant to be a form of grim entertainment and he takes pride in his work ethic and sense of entrepreneurship.

At the same time, he does not lack in self awareness, noting to Russo (also great here) how her late night program devotes 22 seconds to education, government and other facets of the news and focuses primarily on the grotesque. "Nightcrawler" is pretty on-point in its portrayal of the TV news, although it's obviously exaggerated for dramatic effect and there are a few scenes that are not entirely believable - most notably, Russo's outright admittance to Lou that crime coverage's most important angle is that of white people being attacked by minorities in white neighborhoods.

The film has been labeled as a satire and it is occasionally funny, but you can detect a sense of outrage in its pitch black humor. "Nightcrawler" is also creepy, intense and thrilling and a terrific showcase for its cast, which also includes Bill Paxton and Ann Cusack. Much like its disturbed protagonist, the picture is pretty unforgettable.

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