Twisted, dark, intense and full of brilliant performances. Is Nightcrawler the best thriller released this year? Maybe.
by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)
October seems to be the time of year when all the big-hitter films come out to play. They’ve had most of their international film festival runs by now, gearing up for Oscar season, and the summer blockbusters have all had their fun and dispersed for another 6 months. Fury and Gone Girl have started off this pre-Academy Award season, both of which were very promising beginnings for this period, but Nightcrawler quite possibly tops them both. The comparison may be unfair given the relatively modest budget of an estimated $8m, and the dark, sinister tone is probably more in keeping with the Failed Critics’ favourite suspense-thriller The Guest, but it is no less hard hitting than any of them.
It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a bit of a ne’er do well who is looking for his calling in life. Eventually, through a rather fortunate encounter, he finds his purpose – his defining moment, an epiphany – as a crime scene videographer. After being rejected from yet another job opportunity, Louis chances upon an encounter that will change his life. Pulling his car over at the scene of a very recent motor-accident whilst on an aimless drive through the street-light brightened roads of late-night L.A., a van suddenly pulls up behind him. Rushing out, film camera and assistant in tow, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) videos everything going on around him; from the police pulling a bloodied woman from the wreckage, to the rising flames of the vehicles engine. Fascinated by this, and being something of a self-confessed fast learner, Louis watches, observes and questions what Joe is doing. Revealing that he sells the footage to news channels, Louis becomes obsessed with this idea and in his best top-knotted entrepreneurial spirit decides to pursue a line of work in the same field. The only thing is, he gets so caught up in it that he begins to get more and more involved in the crimes themselves as his drive for success, his ambition to be the absolute best, requires the generation of bigger and better news stories.
I’m sure to some people, rather understandably, that sounds like a rather ridiculous story. Think of it like the TV show Dexter; a forensics cop who is also a serial killer? Give me a break. Wait, actually, you know what, Dexter turned out pretty damn good (well, up to and including season four in any case). And just like Dexter, Nightcrawler takes a silly premise and turns it into something golden. It may very well be one of my favourite films of the year.
For a start, it’s a bizarrely funny film. In places, it induced full-on belly-laughs. However, those laughs are not entirely guilt free. A more dark and twisted story this year, that is actually better, you’re unlikely to see. Without the film explicitly stating as such, Louis appears to be basically a high-functioning autistic; he doesn’t really understand the way people interact with each other and ambiguity seems to confuse him. He also appears to have a touch of OCD too. If you’ve seen the trailer you’ll know his motto is “you can’t win the lottery unless you make the money to buy a ticket”. This gives you a very clear indicator of his self-driven personality and narrow vision of success.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is absolutely superb, by the way. He’s beginning to realise some of that early promise that suggested he could potentially become one of the finest and most versatile actors working in Hollywood. Think about it, just within this crime-thriller genre alone, the roles he plays are all so varied. Whether it’s the nerdy intelligent guy in Zodiac, or the rough somewhat renegade detective in Prisoners, or even just the hard as nails skinhead police officer in End of Watch; they’re very different characters but also consistently very good performances.
He’s supported by some quality performances as well in Nightcrawler. Paxton I’ve already mentioned as Louis’ inspiration and main professional rival, and he puts in another fine shift (as if you’d expect anything less). But Rene Russo as the TV news producer plays off Gyllenhaal very well. There’s some genuine chemistry between them. In fact, I’d say the same about his relationship with his intern, Rick; a man so desperate for a job he’ll do anything for a wage and is also played brilliantly by Riz Ahmed. Some of the interactions between Rick and Louis are darkly amusing. I assumed intentionally? I don’t want to say too much about their development over the course of the film, suffice to say it’s done in a not necessarily believable way, because it really does feel like a movie, if that makes sense, but it’s developed in a way that you genuinely are interested in them.
Away from the actual characters, Dan Gilroy (writer and director) apparently has a lot to say about the media. Particularly TV news. Not all of it complimentary! A phrase that’s used at one point by Bill Paxton’s character is “if it bleeds, it leads”. A message that is hammered home throughout the entire movie. Just why is ethical journalism given such short shrift, pushed to one side in favour of viewer ratings? Is it really because that’s what people what to see? Exploitation, gore, blood and guts on breakfast news whilst they munch down on their cornflakes? It appears to be a damning indictment of the pressures that are placed on them. Although, here in Britain, we don’t have quite as severe a problem as they have in the US. Just look at their coverage of the Ebola crisis for example to see how ridiculously overblown and scaremongering it can be. It’s also where similarities with David Fincher’s Gone Girl can be drawn as they both lay into television media reporting. Yet it’s still relevant to UK viewers because it talks about the constant need to have to have something, anything, to report on and compete with other news channels 24 hours a day to get higher ratings. Obviously not exactly the same as our news channels, but still has some commentary on that drive for big news stories at any expense that can be related to wherever you are in the world.
The most notorious scene from this film, and one that will probably help establish it as something of a classic for years to come, is the “horror house” section. For fear of giving anything away, I will not be discussing it in detail. However, later this week you can expect an article on this one particular scene from Callum. Yep, a whole article about one scene. That’s how good it is.
As much as I enjoyed the whole film, as intelligent as it can be at times and as biting as the satire is, there are a few negatives worth mentioning. It takes a teeny tiny dip in quality around a third of the way in. Virtually from the moment Gyllenhaal steps into the newsroom for the first time with Russo and gives a little speech. It’s not so much the dialogue that’s a problem; as it happens, I thought the dialogue and script throughout the film was one of its stronger aspects. What lets it down, and indeed many other scenes, is the choice of soundtrack. There are some completely weird and out of key choices here. Just when this ambitious but deceptively violent man is explaining what exactly drives him, in the background is a very distracting and cheesy 80’s-esque backing track. It’s honestly like something out of Big or The Mighty Ducks. A very odd sentimental choice that didn’t fit at all. It happened a few times with various other scenes. The only assumption to be made is the music is an artistic choice. What’s playing is how Louis would imagine it, and not what the actual tone of the film demands.
Also, I’m sorry to have to point it out as it shouldn’t matter at all, but some of the CGI used (which was sparse anyway) was very cheap looking. Think the aeroplane crash in Knowing. Yes, that bad. It’s not a huge problem as there weren’t really many scenes that called for the use of CGI. Most of the action scenes that we do see are actually incredibly sophisticated, complex and most of all, exciting. One fantastic car chase as the police hurtle through L.A. traffic lights is unreal. Best of all, it doesn’t have (as much as I could make out) any CGI! It’s just that, I can’t escape it, the CGI that is used on occasion is utter bollocks.
Despite all of this, as mentioned at the top of the review, Nightcrawler is incredibly enjoyable. The first half of the film that introduces Louis and his quirks was excellent, setting itself up well for the remaining 60 minutes. A slight dip in quality 45 minutes in is nothing to quibble about as it picks up again rapidly. By the end, I flat out loved it. If you’ve any interest in seeing a tense thriller that tells an intelligent story, that’s as darkly-comic as often as it is sickeningly disturbing, then I’m sure you will enjoy Nightcrawler as much as I did.
Nightcrawler hits UK cinemas this Friday, 31 October 2014.