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‘Nightcrawler’ Movie Review

‘Nightcrawler’ Movie Review

A study in disquieting “stillness” by Jake Gylenhaal.

The central character in Nightcrawler (2014) is a man so odd, so off-beat, so entirely cold in his demeanour that I came away from the film unsure about what I had just seen. Is Louis Bloom a sadistic sociopath? A pathological misanthrope? Or just a chronic social outcast – a tragic misfit, comfortable with his own pariah status from society? Perhaps he is all of the above – you decide.

The role of this misfit is performed by Jake Gylenhaal (“Source Code”, “Brothers”). In my estimation, he goes from strength to strength as a character actor. “Nightcrawler” begins with Bloom trying to scrap a living stealing scrap metal and selling it onto dealers. He mugs a security guard who catches him in the act of stealing. This is in part to escape, but also to steal the guards swanky wristwatch. And so, we immediately wonder is Bloom’s kleptomania is entirely “needs-driven”.

This line of work proves to be a dud, and as he crawls the LA streets by night (gloriously depicted by cinematographer Robert Elswit) he encounters a live accident scene being attended to by policemen. The scene is also being filmed by a ragged video-journalist Joe Loder  (Bill Paxton, in a rare role which he can truly get his teeth into). Bloom is intrigued. As he discovers, Loder et al make a living by filming these grisly accident scenes and selling them onto local TV news studios for broadcast the next morning.

The story progresses to depict how Bloom himself makes a bumbling start along this new career avenue. He’s predictably clueless at first, but he’s a fast learner. As we later learn, Bloom is a voracious reader, and spends most of his spare time researching on the internet out of his tragically colorless LA apartment. He lives there alone, save for a solitary plant by his television. (We see him regularly watering said fauna throughout the film, in a clever visual metaphor of the career path Bloom is gently cultivating).

Along the way, Bloom hires an assistant named Rik – a broke, homeless college graduate who is so bumbling and unsure of himself that he literally chokes on half his own words as he’s given the opportunity to work the nightshift with Bloom (though he still doesn’t know what the job actually entails). Rik is played by Riz Ahmed in a terrifically performance which I felt was crucial in giving weight to the events of this movie.

In his initial encounter with Rik in a common LA city diner, we see that Bloom speaks almost entirely in prose you’d expect to hear only in company boardroom meetings. His is a prosody and vocabulary that sounds so overwhelmingly like marketing double-speak and self-promotional claptrap that we wonder if Bloom is talking like this as a joke. (We later learn that he most certainly is not – this is really how Bloom sees the world around him). Rik provides the everyman lens through which we can marvel at the pathology of Bloom’s character. Things get darker and darker.

This unlikely duo proceed to film one car-wreck and shooting after another, culminating in a bloody multiple homicide in an upscale LA home. Bloom arrives before the police, and enters said domicile to film the rapidly expiring victims with such detachment that we really start to wonder what’s wrong with this guy. As we later learn, his is a mind so brilliantly calculating and manipulative that those around him really don’t stand a chance.

In a later scene, Rik and Bloom undertake a protracted financial negotiation in Bloom’s car. The backdrop to this is the rapidly spiralling risks that Bloom is forcing Rik to take in pursuit of their next dubious nightly-news tidbit. After much cunning misdirection from the masterful Bloom (he really outmatches Rik by a mile in sheer negotiation chutzpah), the employee puts his foot down. “I want half of whatever you make from this shoot,” Rik says with finality.

In a long, pregnant moment, Bloom looks out into the night. “Well, if that’s what you want, then I guess ….. ” (a LONG beat) “….. I’m gonna have to give it to you.”  As this final sentence is delivered, Bloom looks over at Rik ominously. We almost know at this point that Bloom’s words have a double-meaning. Is he referring to the money … or something else. Gaaaah – he’s all the more creepy for his soul-less demeanour and dead-pan style.

The other stand-out performance in “Nightcrawler” is by Rene Russo. She takes the role of Nina Romina – news director during the “Vampire Shift” for an ailing local TV news studio. She becomes the regular buyer of Bloom’s grisly road-side videos. Infact, she snaps them up eagerly in an effort to boost her TV station’s flagging ratings – and to save her own job. And so, if you will, Bloom and Nina are two rather desperate figures, whose paths cross as they forge their way to their chosen career goals.

Bloom, though, has other ideas. Beautiful and smart as Nina is, Bloom decides he’s entitled to a physical relationship with her, in addition to a professional one. This, despite the fact that she must be twice his age. Nina is initially resistant to this awkward proposal. In a cringable dinner date at a Mexican restaurant which she later agrees to, Bloom lays bare his naked ambitions. He disects Nina’s life and career failings with a surgeon’s precision that makes his sociopathy clear: this man will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. And he doesn’t stop short of professional blackmail.

All told, its an uncomfortable scene to watch. Nina, clearly used to getting her way by throwing her weight, beauty and intelligence around, is reduced to an almost childlike speechlessness by Bloom’s ruthless monologue. “She can’t be seriously considering this awful proposal, can she?” we think in our cinema seats. But remember, Nina is desperate. And Bloom knows it only too well. Gaaaaah! It can only get worse from here.

I needn’t say much more about the plot of Nightcrawlers, other than that the story is compelling and believable, and culminates in the kind of climax that few dramas can manage. This film has it all – action, character, and pathos. As a former LA resident, I can attest to the high quality of the photography and filming. It renders the dark, brooding, deserted LA streets as a compelling principal character in movie – which, ofcourse, they are.

Gylenhaal’s performance is creepily compelling on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start. He apparently lost 30 pounds prior to the start of principal photography for the film. It shows: his face is gaunt, pale and hollow throughout (no doubt also a testament to the lighting used to frame his features). His eye sockets are almost hollow, giving his piercing stare a creepy stillness. This is an actor who knows how to “be still” – and he uses this to great effect.

I found myself both in awe of Bloom’s calculated precision and repulsed by his dim and cynical outlook on how to approach human relationships. Yep – all of them. No one he deals with in the film is spared from his brutal manipulations. The details of this are left for you to discover when you watch the film yourself.

Bloom actions throughout – both at the scenes of accidents and during his human interactions – are so morally reprehensible, so utterly morally bankrupt, that we can’t help but conclude that he will eventually fall foul of the law and end up behind bars himself. And yet, so calculated is Bloom’s every action – so brilliant an incisive is his strategic mind – that he literally walks away from a murder scene without so much as a dint to his name.

This is much to the chagrin of the perceptive policewoman (Detective Frontieri) who tries to snare him. In a late encounter in a police interrogation room, Bloom’s utterly cold and calculated demeanour causes her to snap. “I think that every word you’ve said to me is a lie.” she exclaims. We think he’s bound for prison at this point. But in the very next scene, he’s walking free. This guy is GOOD (if you know what I mean).

Even Rik, the hapless assistant, finally starts to see the madness behind Bloom’s lifeless methods. “I don’t believe a word you say!” he exclaims to Bloom in one moment of fine candour. But Rik is so clueless, so unsure of himself – so lacking in even a modicum of self-esteem – that he soon forgets his realisation. And this – in the tradition of a Greek tragedy – is his ultimate undoing. This works because the characters in the story are painted so well. We BELIEVE who Rik is, just as we believe who Bloom is. Great writing and acting all round.

All the supporting performances are strong. Paxton is delightful as the seedy competitor, and Russo nails it as the hard-as-nails TV exec with a soft underbelly. Again, huge props go to Riz Ahmed, who really provides the “everyman” lens through which we can experience the sadistic nature of this story and still stay sane. The music and soundtrack of the film are well-judged and add nicely to the pacing and drama of what is, in the end, a thumping good story about a seriously messed-up dude.

But we just can’t seem to take our eyes off him.

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