the better truth

the better truth

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Nightcrawler (2014)

Nightcrawler (2014)
Portrait of a CEO as a Young Man

 …in the midst of a war that was selfish, ruthless and cruel Sammy was proving himself the fittest and the fiercest and the fastest.”
― Budd Schulberg, “What Makes Sammy Run?”

This is just like television, only you can see much further.
― Chance the Gardener riding in a car for first time from Jerzy Kosinski’s “Being There”

“Nightcrawler” is a film depicting the meteoric rise of a sociopathic freelance news cameraman who specializes in recording crime related carnage. The premise is unsettling but the real terror lies in Dan Gilroy’s ability to take this work out of the low earth orbit of the thriller/action/horror genres. This film has more in common with the seminal “Network” than “Silence of the Lambs”. Certainly Hannibal Lector is scary but Louis Bloom, played masterfully by Jake Gyllenhaal, is a more pernicious type of monster. The former enjoys being a devil, Bloom sees happiness as something that gets in the way of the real reason for existence, profit.  Gilroy manages, amidst car chases, bloody bodies and Bloom’s eyeball-rolling grins, to give a commentary on the dangers of our distracted culture. It is an art-house film posturing successfully as a mainstream feature with ironic warnings against the perils of entertainment and the banality of corporate careerism.  Gilroy never preaches. The repulsiveness of Bloom’s vision is exposed in a carefully calibrated climb up the entrepreneurial ladder. Bloom never engages in overt violence, but his actions are as disturbing as Lector’s cannibalism. An audience member might consider an encounter with a deranged serial killer to be a matter of luck. That same movie-goer knows there is no escaping the endless smiling junior achievers, salesmen and corporate shills. Louis Bloom is the embodiment of the unforgiving fine print. There is no way out except endless vigilance. Louis means business.

The casting in “Nightcrawler” is superb. Bloom's hard luck ‘partner’ in his news gathering start up, played by Riz Ahmed, provides a startling contrast for Gyllenhaal’s unstoppable appetite for domination. Each encounter exponentially illustrates the former’s callowness and the latter’s savagery. The final sequence culminates in Riz’s sheepish attempt at taking a stand. This is met by Gyllenhaal’s channeling all the contempt of corporate flack by saying that Riz’s failure to meet agreed upon performance requirements will result in physical harm. Riz caves to the bullying thereby sharing the fate of every minimum wage slave or under-educated plaintiff caught in the rigged trap of economic desperation. His fate is sealed with his unvarnished honesty in verbally disclosing that there is something very very very wrong with his boss and the overall situation. Expressing doubt in your leader’s vision is a capital offense as is the crime of competing too well… just ask the rival news stringer played wonderfully by Bill Paxton. Louis not only dispatches him by jimmying his truck but, to the horror of Riz, records the aftermath of the crash. The old, defeated veteran is loaded into the ambulance while Louis leans over with a cam corder. This is a visual metaphor for those who fail to understand the new dimensions of a competitive marketplace. The only way to survive Louis is to get out of the way or get in bed with him. The latter is the strategy employed by Rene Russo who embodies the mean-spirited vulgarity of local TV news. The old adage, “if it bleeds it leads”, has been replaced by, in the words of the news director, “a hysterical screaming white woman running down the street”. The mealy mouthed news staff might be appalled but everyone knows that she is bringing home the bacon with Louis’s endless supply of snuff films. Russo worn mascara, cigarette stained physicality matches Gyllenhaal’s skeletal creepiness. She plays at being Louis but in the end she knows she’s is a low ratings week away from being featured as a victim one of her leading news stories. Her better self is repelled by Louis but like Lady Anne before her, she ends up falling for Richard III. Maybe Lewis could toss her off the roof of the studio and film it in slow motion. It sounds unlikely but it is the inevitable direction of all their hard work.

Gilroy fills this feature with unorthodox small moments of revelation. Lewis’s complete derangement shows through in polished speeches about being a “hard worker” and “quick learner”. But it glows in the quieter moments. In an early scene a scrap yard manager is accepting Louis’ delivery of stolen metal. He quickly dismisses Louis’ plea of a job. “I’m not hiring a thief”.  Louis is not offended. Anger only clouds the path to profit. He almost thanks the man for his candor. This “feedback” is something he can use. Perhaps the most poignant moment is a brief view of Louis at home. Casually taking part in Ellinor Rigby type domestic chores (dawning socks and ironing). He views a  slap-stick routine on one of the channels. A knight in full armor is seemingly decapitated -followed by the reveal that the suit of armor was inhabited by a petite woman who pops here head through the shoulders after the helmet flies off. Louis, for the first and only time in the entire film, roars with laughter. It is the type of humor more suited to a eight year old boy or an eighty year old man; then again the apartment is decorated with the same pre-adolescent or late geriatric sensibility.  An antiseptic, sparsely decorated room dominated by a TV. Our monster appears, to paraphrase Shakespeare,  unfinished sent before his time… scarce half made up. It is hard to feel anything for someone so depraved but the site of him in that cubicle of a living space almost provokes sympathy. Note: despite receiving an economic windfall from his perverted news-gathering, he remains living in his cell. He will get a nice mansion when his career requires it, not before. It might appear to be the same flashy style as his spiritual brother from “There Will Be Blood” but it is doubtful that he will end up braining an old friend to death in the basement. That would require passion. Louis only possesses drive.

Speaking of drive this film has a wonderful chase scene that is as disorienting as the the idea that Louis is a mammal. In most film bad guys chase good guys or vice versa. This dynamic car sequence has weird guys chasing good guys chasing bad guys. The swerves and crashes are shot from the POV of Louis and his cohort - but where is the audience’s allegiance? One wishes our anti-hero a worse fate than the erstwhile ‘bad guys’ who have brutally murdered an innocent family in cold blood. Such is the logic in a world in which Louis is winning.

Gilroy needs to be credited with producing an excellent film but it is not without flaws. The opening title sequence displayed Robert Elswit Hopper-esque picture of LA. One could hear Jim Morrison screaming “cops in cars, topless bars, never met a woman.. so alone”. This promising opening was followed by a slow meandering start. There is a long series of scenes establishing Louis prowess as a ruthless, slick, fast-talking petty thief who stumbles on the news gathering business by the serendipity of witnessing a gruesome car crash. The mechanics of the execution of the material failed to match the remaining 3/4 of the film. It dragged. The problem might lie in the disconnect between Louis’ super human efficiency and his status as a petty thief in the opening sequence. As the film progresses it showcases his extraordinary capacity to mimic and digest vital bits of information. The opaque references to his origins are equally puzzling. Louis has the ‘right’ answer to all questions. He can make up yarns on the spot and speak the language of negotiation whether he is hocking stolen metal, a high end bike or a reel of grizzly footage. When Russo asks about his history he is uncharacteristically taciturn. Where does Louis really come from? Does someone with his demonic skill set end up hocking manhole covers while he’s in his thirties? It might have been better to have Louis enter the movie returning from a prison stint. His lack of circulation might account for his dearth of achievement. The early Louis seems to undercut the diabolical achievements of the latter Louis.  It would also be interesting for him to present, whether real or imaginary, a portrait of his family. It is the kind of thing he would know would be expected in basic remedial human interaction. What would he come up with? Or perhaps a straightforward rendition of the real life origins would be even more disquieting. In watching endless episodes of 48 Hours and other “women in a ditch” TV programs it is apparent that these creatures spring from Ozzie and Harriet’s cradle.

Gilroy also seems rooted in the grimness of Louis’ world view. There is no humor (or sex) in this film. It’s not that the material screams comedy or passion but simply screaming, or more precisely, recording people screaming, fails to deliver the depravity of Louis. Riz might have served as a human foil. He might have feigned a real connection which would have given more gravitas to Louis’ actions at the end of the film. It also might have made eased the unrelenting darkness of our anti-hero. Truth be told Louis is a one note song. It’s a wonderful, albeit discordant, sound so why not ad some brief major chords of humor. One can only imagine Louis at a corporate event trying to impress the suits at headquarters. There is a touch of this as he wanders the newsroom and people know his name. His glad handing and smiling are as tragic/comic as Starkweather at the close of Malick’s “Badlands”. Louis has mastered the affect of being a “just one of the guys” hero while possessing the track record of a cold blooded killer with boundless contempt for humanity. The reality is merely a poor relation to what really matters, image. It is interesting, in this context, that the writers chose to name the protagonist Louis Bloom. Perhaps this is a mirror image of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, the central figure in Ulysses. Whereas Joyce journeys into Leopold’s subconscious giving an expansive commentary on the human condition, Gilroy delves into the dearness of Louis’ mind which is akin to stimulus/response Skinner Box. In this case operant conditioning can be entertaining albeit with less of the grand insight given by Joyce. Leopold is a meditation on humanity. Louis is a study in a particular pathology.

Despite some blemishes Gilroy delivers a film with resonance. Although the media, specifically news gathering organizations, takes center stage, there are broader implications to Bloom’s penchant for replacing “news” with fiction. Life is not fiction, it is stranger. A few weeks ago many publications covering the Ebola crisis tapped the screenwriter for the feature film “Contagion” as an appropriate “expert” to deliver commentary on the health crisis. Who needs a bore with an advanced degree epidemiology when Hollywood can spin a colorful yarn. Given this logic the director of the “The Titanic” might be tapped to weigh in on international North Atlantic transport agreements. There are real life consequences to replacing the arduous hard work of understanding with the distraction of entertainment. Know that our current obsession with Kardashian’s butt can render us vulnerable to ending up on a stretcher with Louis’ cam corder hovering overhead.  We must retain our vigilance. We must trust, but verify while always reading the fine print. We must always have a strong counter offer. We must never take our eye (or mind) off the never-end stream of efficient smiling adversaries. This is the new price of civilization, otherwise we will be eaten by night crawlers.  Over two centuries ago Voltaire warned us: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities”. One can imagine Louis Bloom hearing these words and exclaiming in a eureka moment: “now you’re giving me something I can work with”.

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