Nightcrawler ★★★★

2-Minute Review:

This would have been such a shock to me if they had done one of those typical marketing movie trailers for it: "From the writer of Freejack, Two For The Money, and the Bourne movie that ruined Jeremy Renner's career as a leading man..." After a gripping opening scene, the first 30 minutes of this film seemed to be going the same way as most of the other writing and directing that Dan Gilroy has done: obvious, stilted, and underwhelming despite the stars involved. But gradually Gyllenhaal's performance convinces you that the awkwardness and artificiality is right for telling the story of a psychopath clawing his way up through the LA underbelly. Highlighted by great supporting performances including Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler is often an effective mood piece and succeeds in delivering in a compelling package what the pretentious film "Funny Games" failed to...twice.


For The Real Cinephiles:

I was unfamiliar with the slang uses of "nightcrawler" and only knew it as the worm that burrows in during the day but you can see crawling around in the dirt at night. I grew up in a fishing family, and knew you could often turn over a rock or log and find these things crawling around on autopilot, driven by a hunger to just crawl forward and devour without thought for anything else. It's an apt description for Gyllenhaal's character "Louis" in this film.

The terms "psychopath" and "sociopath" are old and have been replaced in psychology with a broader diagnosis of "Anti-Social Personality Disorder", or ASPD. However, they did offer an important distinction to the perception of two different types of anti-social people. We think of "psychopaths" from the movies (like Psycho) as crazy killers with deep drives and passions. But that's really what more used to be called a sociopath, which Louis here is not. I had a professor in university that used to talk about his experience visiting prisons and dealing with violent criminals, and he noted that it's not that sociopaths don't know right from wrong, they just don't let that stop them. Their personal needs and emotions overwhelm their restraint, and they justify things that 99% of the population wouldn't.

Very quickly here, it's shown that Louis is a proper old psychopath though. He rejects the very concept of "right" and "wrong", thinking that only suckers play by those rules. He's not driven by strong emotions, but most often by cold calculations. He's narcissistic and lacks empathy or decency, though he intellectually understands these things and can fake them when needed. In the film, we see that often people can sense something "off" about him, but he's charming enough that much of the time they're willing to overlook those little tells as long as their dealings with him benefit themselves. Louis knows this and uses it to his great advantage. In fact, you could almost argue that he sees everyone run into moral roadblocks, and sees everyone compromise themselves at some point, which only strengthens his cynical view of the world. If Louis titled this film, it might be "The Cost of Success: How to Succeed in Business By Leveraging Your Assets Into Gains".

While all this is being revealed to us, James Newton Howard's phenomenal score is doing the heavy lifting. Early in the film, it's the driving factor setting the tone, telling us to overlook this stilted, forced dialogue and focus on the Tension & Release developing in Louis' exploration of crime-chasing. Robert Elswit's darkest, richest cinematography since There Will Be Blood sinks us in to this murky world, where traumatic events suddenly appear out of the darkness of the night. As a first-time director, Dan Gilroy (not to be confused with brother, Tony) begins to find his stride as Louis' journey picks up steam, becoming focused on his "business plan". The world of "stringer" videographers selling to news networks was something that I knew nothing about, and as clunky and unlikely as Louis' entry into it was, it made for an illuminating journey for me as a viewer.

The film really picks up as Louis bounces off other actors though, like the late, great, Bill Paxton. When he calls Louis a "twerp", he's one of the few people that can make that feel like a genuine, non-forced insult. RIP, Chet. Then we get the wonderful Riz Ahmed, who I was now looking back on after being blown away by his later performance in Sound of Metal. He's almost entirely different here, especially early on as a meek, floundering young homeless guy. His exchanges with Gyllenhaal become more taut as Louis chooses to take great risks and place them in more morally-fraught situations in the pursuit of stories that will sell. The same applies later his interplay with Rene Russo as the late-night news producer who Louis burrows his way into.

There is obviously a commentary here to be made about a TV news audience, about how easily they are triggered by fear, violence, pandering narratives and stories that play to the worst impulses of humanity. And that's not for some joke of a network like OCN or Fox "News". This is just the way normal news works, ever since it has had to get ratings (the '90s, kids). There's also an obvious parallel between we as a movie audience, watching films that have so much violence, tragedy, that need to feature people "like us" for us to be interested. While this is an engaging film on its own, it's hard for it to NOT occur to a general audience that it's poking at how we got to where we are today....24 hour cable news, ultra-violent horror and action films, the wave of True Crime podcasts and TV. Where does it end? When do we realize this is a toxic and corrosive cycle that perpetuates itself?

I'm not much a fan of the idea that violence in media is the cause of violence in real life. Where Funny Games oversteps and is condescending and abusive to its audience, this film is more subtle and more thoughtful. It's not that exposure to violence might make us violent, but what does it do to our thinking? How callous does it make us? Is it making us more empathic or less? And how does our pursuit of success, in "business" and status and finances, how does that affect what we rationalize in our own lives as 'just part of the deal', a cost we're willing to pay?

Nightcrawler is a film that I think encourages viewers to linger on these questions long after the ending of its 'success story', a perversion of the "hero's journey" that lacks any effort at morality or empathy in its portrayal. While Louis is somewhat weaker for being a cypher with no past and no development, the story that unfolds around him makes up for lack of believability with a moral imperative to examine the actual people doing the same work he's doing... and what it means about us that there's such a market for it. I wish that more people who watched Wolf of Wall Street left that with the same feeling I had at the end of this. I guess that film just enjoyed the fun of bastarding your way into success too much. This one doesn't pretend it's anything but stomach-turning.

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