Sunday, January 4, 2015

BEST FILMS OF 2014-- #8: "Nightcrawler" is the Showcase Jake Gyllenhaal Deserves

This is the fourth in a series of eleven posts counting down my favorite films of the year. Be sure to read about my #9 pick, #10 pick#11 pick, and about the honorable mentions too.

Let's get this out of the way: no, he's not the blue guy from X-Men. He's much more terrifying.

One of the rules of improvisation is that you should never try to be the star. If you try to be the center of attention, the scene will fail. One of the most important skills is, therefore, to step back. This principal applies to any sort of ensemble performing: one of the first lessons any good actor learns is that the better you make your scene partner look, the better you are. Graciousness is a perpetually underrated quality of performance. And few film actors epitomize this idea of selflessness on screen than Jake Gyllenhaal. He has spent his entire career to date staying out of the spotlight. In most of his leading roles, he typically tends to stand back and allow other performers have the bolder choices. Take, for example, his work in David Fincher's brilliant Zodiac. Gyllenhaal is, for the most part, the main character, and has the most screentime. But the film is not about him, it is about the zodiac killer. Another actor might have turned Robert Graysmith into a larger presence, which would have been distracting, drawing focus from the titular zodiac (this would have been easy since we, for obvious reasons, never actually see the zodiac killer on screen). But Gyllenhaal stepped back. He stayed out of the spotlight. What makes Gyllenhaal so good in these types of roles, though, is that he nonetheless instills his more background characters with a very defined presence and rich history. He adds complexity to characters who, as written, tend to lack such depth. With very little to work with, he brings out a tremendous richness to all of his characters. He gives us enough to make these characters feel real and fully-formed, and then backs off-- allowing other actors or ideas to take center stage. His greatest skill is typically in making others look good, while not neglecting his own work.

This all changes in Nightcrawler. For the first time, Gyllenhaal has been gifted a role that puts him front and center, and encourages him to run with it. This is the role Gyllenhaal has been waiting for, and this is the performance we've all been waiting for from Gyllenhaal. The film was written (by director and relative newcomer Dan Gilroy, who does a great job on both accounts) to be a character study, and Gyllenhaal gives not only the performance of his career, but arguably the best performance of the year. Almost solely through word of mouth, Gyllenhaal has been elevated from being a dark horse for Best Actor to being a legitimate contender, whose Oscar nomination seems more and more guaranteed.

Jake Gyllenhaal in his masterful performance as Louis Bloom.

In Nightcrawler, he plays Lou Bloom, a sociopath with a go-getter attitude. Everything about this performance is frightening. Gyllenhaal lost twenty pounds for the role, and it leaves him looking gaunt and manic. His eyes pop, and there's just a default look of wildness to everything he does. He's simultaneously uncomfortable and fascinating to watch. The most fascinating thing about Lou Bloom is in how he interacts with people. This is a character who does not understand humans in the least--he has a clear lack of empathy and terrifyingly askew code of ethics that leaves him incapable of processing how most people think or act. And yet, Bloom considers himself a student of human behavior. He admits to reading about human behavior on the internet and, as such, feels he's an expert on the subject. We get to watch Bloom as he does what he thinks is normal, which makes his behavior at once recognizable to us, yet clearly forced and overdone. His smile is always a little too wide, his speech always a little too measured, his genial tone a little too practiced. It's fascinating to watch, and Bloom becomes one of the strangest characters to ever grace the screen. He's like a somewhat better-adjusted Thermian.

In case you couldn't tell I like this film, I just compared it to Galaxy Quest and that's the highest compliment I can pay any film.

Bloom, as the title suggests, works as a nightcrawler, a person who videotapes various accidents and crime scenes to sell the footage to news stations. Nightcrawlers constantly listen in on police reports, and rush to car crashes to film the carnage-- the more graphic the better. The other nightcrawlers in the film are seen as very cynical and detached. They don't come across as people you want to be around-- their apathy in the face of morbidity is, frankly, disgusting. And yet, there's a brusque familiarity to their actions--at the end of the day, recording these accidents is a job. And you get a sense that the job has changed them. This is not what they enjoy doing, but it pays the bills. This contrasts with Lou, who approaches the job with a disturbing enthusiasm. We actually get to see Lou as he discovers his unusual calling. At the beginning of the film, Lou is a thief who steals wire fencing (and watches...and bicycles...the film wastes few opportunities to pain his moral depravity) to sell to construction companies for a profit. Feeling that he is destined for more, Lou happens to pass by a car crash on the road, and pulls over to get a closer look. While doing so, he sees a freelance camera crew come over and learns of this job's existence. The filmmaking is gorgeous scene. The accident is, of course, horrific. Ambulances, stretchers, blood, bodies, the works. But the accident is shot in a way that sets it up as beautiful. It is illuminated, seemingly in a pocket of heavenly light, and we can feel it calling out to Lou. We understand that something in this carnage is appealing to him, even though it is horrific to us.

One of the examples of Nightcrawler's tremendous use of light.

This scene is a wonderful example of the quiet filmmaking of Nightcrawler. In making a film about a dangerous sociopath, it would be tempting to really go all out, but both Gyllenhaal and the film itself show remarkable restraint. There is quite a bit of blood in the film, but there is not a lot actual gore or violence. When Lou goes to a crime scene, we do not see the crime or the accident itself, we only see the aftermath. In other words, we see the evidence of violence as opposed to the actual violence. And this technique makes the film unsettling without being crass and distasteful. And much like with the scenes that Louis Bloom videotapes, even if we don't see violence in Lou himself, the film hints at it. As disturbing as Lou's occupation is, if he didn't do this, one gets the sense he would be a serial killer-- so, film away, Lou! For the most part, Lou is very composed and calm, but you nonetheless can sense how dangerous he is.

Like a deer in the headlights. If deer want to kill you and make videos of the murder.

The film continues to show restraint by glossing over some of Lou's most dangerous behavior. At one point, he sabotages the van of a fellow nightcrawler (Bill Paxton), one with whom he has had disagreements in the past. This causes the van to crash-- an "accident" at which Lou is the first to arrive and film. It's a huge moment-- yet the film views it only from the sidelines. In any other film, we would be present as the car crashed. Here, again, Lou only arrives at the aftermath of his own destruction. And rather than reveling in the revenge he has just taken, Lou treats it as any other job. As a result, the most ethically corrupt action of the main character (at this point in the film, at least) has just been glossed over. And this makes it all the more disturbing. And yet this is not the most disturbing implication made by the film. At one point, Lou goes to dinner with Nina Romina (Rene Russo, in a masterful, comeback performance which should really be getting more attention) a news director who Lou works with exclusively, and threatens her into engaging in sexual relations with him. It's a scary scene-- and the one where Lou's actions feel the most calculated as he manipulates and controls Nina who, it's important to note, never comes across as weak but nonetheless is clearly not in a position of power in this scene. The idea of them only comes up again one more time-- later in the film, Lou mentions the idea of her "in bed," but a scene of them together is never shown. This is interesting-- it incorporates misogyny into the many moral bankruptcies of Lou's being, but by not showing this and simply implying it, the film does not demean or objectify Nina. By glossing over the details of this relationship (and, truly, the details are never given although Nina certainly does not seem to be consenting to it) we also are not made privy to what is likely the most intimate relationship Lou has ever had with another person. Again, the sexual dynamic of Lou and Nina would have been played up much more in any other film, but it would have cheapened the film.

By not focusing on these more actively illegal parts of Lou's behavior, the film also manages to keep Lou as cool and collected (or at least his perception of it) and so we can only imagine the full extent of his violence and danger. This all comes to a head in one scene, where, in anger, Lou screams and breaks a mirror. You've probably seen the image in the trailer. It is terrifying. In this one scene, all of the underlying anger that we know Lou possesses comes to a head and it is, in a word, inhuman. Gyllenhaal snarls his face into an animalistic grimace-- it is unbridled rage, let out of Lou's practiced shell. It is a face of evil. It is the true nature of Lou that we have been waiting to see all along.

This. This is the face.

As a film, Nightcrawler owes a lot to Martin Scorsese's acclaimed Taxi Driver. The comparisons should be pretty obvious-- Louis Bloom is basically Travis Bickle in the digital age. But, I have a confession to make: I am not a fan of Taxi Driver. I know, I know, this is blasphemy. Considering that art is subjective and not every film will please everyone, I think that by the law of averages, every professed film buff has that one movie that everyone thinks is brilliant and they just do not respond to. And Taxi Driver is that film for me (and it's not the only Scorsese film that has not been my cup of tea). In many ways, I think that Nightcrawler out-Taxi Drivers Taxi Driver. Perhaps it has to do with me being of a younger generation, but I find Louis Bloom both more outlandish and more realistic than Travis Bickle-- while both are immediately identifiable as dangerous, Louis Bloom's attempts at charm give him an engaging quality, and one can understand how he might judge him to be an endearing weirdo as opposed to a ticking time bomb. The problem for me with Taxi Driver is that I never understood why anyone would want anything to do with this Bickle. So, Nightcrawler perfects the archetype that Scorsese and Robert DeNiro created, and in some ways, watching it helped me understand what people are responding to when they watch Taxi Driver. And Nightcrawler is chock full of references to Taxi Driver in return for paying it such a service (I could list them but there would be too many, and I'd probably miss most of them, to be honest). But the Taxi Driver comparison did lead me to an interesting theory I want to float by those who have seen the film. Towards the end of the movie, there's a scene where Nina and her colleague at the news station are talking and the colleague says that she sounds like Lou, and she agrees and says something along the lines of "Maybe we should all be more like Lou." The scene is bizarre-- the Nina we have come to know has vanished and her colleague is right: she sounds much more like Lou than herself. All of this is accompanied by some strange musical underscoring. So, what is this about? Well, I have a theory: this scene takes place in Lou's mind. After all, at the end of Taxi Driver, there has always been a debate over whether the events are taking place in Travis' mind or are really occurring, so the idea that this scene in Nightcrawler could be a fantasy is not outside the realm of possibility. But, more than that, this is I think (and I do have to check this when I rewatch the film) the ONLY scene that does not have Gyllenhaal in it. Every other scene, he is present, but this time, he is not there. Could it be because it is occurring in his mind? Then there's the dreamlike music and the fact that Nina's dialogue really does sound like Lou's. I don't know, I'll need to revisit this after watching the film again, but I wanted to float the idea out and see what people thought. I think it could explain and enhance one of the weirder scenes in the film.

Rene Russo as straight-laced news director Nina.

It would be unfair to not mention the rest of the cast, who do a great job. I've already mentioned Russo, whose rock-solid professional portrayal of Nina provides a great foil for Lou. Nina is not a particularly warm individual-- after all, she treats the victims in Lou's various bits of footage as nothing more than a way to improve viewership. And perhaps she understands Lou better than anyone else possibly could. But, unlike Lou, we see a very distinct humanity in Nina. Unlike Lou, an explanation is given for her own ruthlessness, as she struggles to make it in a tough business. She also shows Lou a certain degree of kindness that we can't imagine anyone has ever given him, and can't imagine him giving anyone else. Nina sees his eagerness, and commendably looks beyond his oddness to praise him for his talent. She encourages him. When she acts in a negative way, it feels decidedly against the grain, as opposed to Lou who seems comfortable in his lack of humanity. As the film goes on, Russo gives the ever-composed Nina a remarkable feeling of vulnerability. She is afraid-- afraid for her job, and afraid of the person she once trusted. And, more than that, she is afraid of acknowledging these fears. Along with Russo, the film gives us a superb supporting performance by Riz Ahmed, who plays Rick-- a young and undistinguished kid who responds to a job application to work with Lou (and seems to be the only person to respond). If Nina is the emotional foil to Lou, Rick is the comic foil, and is so diametrically opposed to everything Lou stands for that, in my eyes, his scenes bring out the best in Gyllenhaal. Rick is a slacker-- he's disorganized and he's not driven. This is the polar opposite of Lou. But Rick also has a heart-- he proves to be a sensitive guy with a moral code. When Lou berates him, Rick's response is to seize up. He reacts to things emotionally, which only serves to underline the lack of emotional range Lou possesses. In what could have been a throwaway comic-relief role, Ahmed turns Rick into the emotional core of the entire film. He is as close as the film comes to having an innocent character, and is the person who Lou probably affects the most-- and not for the better.

Riz Ahmed and Jake Gyllenhaal's characters have a touching heart-to-heart lol jk no their character dynamic is tragic and disturbing!

This trio of actors--Gyllenhaal especially, but also Russo and Ahmed--all find so many layers of characterization to give to their players. And these characters weave together to form a thrilling character study, which probably had me on the edge of my seat more than any other film this year. There is a classic feeling to Nightcrawler-- it owes a lot not only to Taxi Driver, but to other Scorsese films as well, and to pretty much the entirety of the neo-noir genre. But Nightcrawler nonetheless offers enough innovation to put it over the edge. Add to it the chilling work of a long-overdue actor, and you get one of the most terrifying and bracing films in recent memory.

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