My Five Cents: Nightcrawler (Film of the Year Edition)

Five brief thoughts on a recent film (SPOILERS, especially point 4).

It’s the end of December and hot damn if only I hadn’t saved what was probably the best film of the year until last.

I write a lot about the X-Men, so I should point out that no, this isn’t a spin-off about Alan Cumming’s Kurt Wagner, though that would be awesome too.

1) There are two films that you can’t help but compare this to. Clearly, just by looking at the poster above, you can see that the marketing team wanted to compare this to Drive. Yes, Drive, that Ryan Gosling 80’s music video. I can’t recall if I mentioned here before, but I don’t really care for Drive that much. Yes, it looks good, yes the soundtrack is good but in terms of the plot, it’s hard to really feel that anything going on is real, that you really care what happens or even that the plot makes sense (the scary mob consists of two men well past middle age and if you kill them both, then the threat is gone). Most times a marketing team tries to sell you a movie by comparing it to another movie, it falls flat but here the comparison is a master stroke. For all it’s popularity, Nightcrawler is by far the superior film and it’s hard to imagine that too many punters who wanted to see Drive II: Drive With A Vengeance would walk away without realising it. If you can capture any of a massive hit’s audience for your small, unheralded film then you can perform a bit of a Robin Hood trick and steal from the undeserving rich to give to the deserving poor (a better film made for just over half the budget).

2) Ok, so why is Nightcrawler so good? The Drive comparison is a good one because we can rip through two of Drive’s best features and talk about why Nightcrawler nails it. First off, Nightcrawler looks great. Whereas Drive looks great like a music video, Nightcrawler looks great like a film. There aren’t any instagram filters, perfect sunbeams, neon or too-convenient indoor set colour blocking here. Where Nightcrawler looks good, it’s because the grit shines through. Like Taxi Driver or The Warriors, Nightcrawler takes time to set up the atmosphere of the city at night (LA in this case) as being a different place entirely than the city at day. It’s the city at it’s oddest and most dangerous, with civilisation receded temporarily on a tidal pull. Nightcrawler takes time to set up the atmosphere wonderfully and between various roadsides, suburbs, fast food joints and pylon-filled railway sidings, it sets up a gritty and real, visually sharp and stark landscape, not the romance of cruising down the LA river in a muscle car.

Both films thematically introduce strong violent imagery, but whereas in Drive it’s something Tarantino would have considered for Inglorious Basterds, in Nightcrawler it’s something far less graphic but far more impactful in what it means to the much more realistic setting and the way the violence will be used for personal gain on the news networks (sometimes even just a two-word description of a violent act on a computer screen has a visceral impact, which is quite something).  Both films centre on an otherworldly inhuman outsider but whereas Gosling’s nameless Driver McDriverson is some sort of wordless, stone-faced amoral alien superman (s0mething I found difficult to watch personally, due to the lack of acting involved), Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is a flawed, ugly but understandable character that drips with mystery and depth. Whereas Gosling’s (implied) developmental issues make him a driving and killing genius but rob him of the ability to make table talk or not kill someone in front of his would-be girlfriend, Lou Bloom is someone with a profound disability trying to find direction and purpose and in not understanding the people and society around him, constantly trying regurgitated combinations of things he has learned to get to his childish desires with no learned impulse control.

McDriverson we fear because he has skills that would make him a member of the A-Team, Bloom we fear simply because he is able and uninhibited, whether that means performing an internet search or breaking and entering. In short, McDriverson is a crash test dummy brought to life while Bloom is someone you pity, fear and even empathise with (in what way is writing this piece any different to Bloom’s ghoulish ambulance-chasing journalism I am forced to ask). It’s a quite incredible performance and for once, I agree with a film poster hailing a modern masterpiece. And it has a better car chase sequence too so yah boo!

3) So enough of the film that the marketers wanted to compare this film to. The film itself is clearly a spiritual sucessor to Network, a film I wrote here about not so long ago. Both films are good and both are very much of their time, but to my mind Nightcrawler explores a similar point in a much starker, perhaps more interesting way. Both films carry the themes of the slow death of journalism and the rise of shock infotainment in the name of higher ratings – a wise paternalistic teacher turned into a lude carnival barker outside a peep show. Network goes for the surreal sci-fi element (networks flirting with televising armed terrorism itself) whereas Nightcrawler shows you something that could be happening right now. The character of Lou Bloom is frankly fairly believable as some amoral cameraman. Nightcrawler gives you the best kind of terror – one which focuses on a boogeyman that really might be under our bed.

4) The real strengths of the film are in the character study – which means the detail which went into writing Lou’s mindset, Jake Gyllenhaal’s career best performance to bring the character to life and finally the cinematography that shows you his perspective and his world. The latter makes perfect sense considering Lou’s own interest with film and how to frame his shots, expressed through some rather meta dialogues. Much of the piece is how the filming of each scene adds further layers to what Gyllenhaal is showing about the character.

The first scene that we see of Lou’s apartment is a dark, hardly lit wide angle looking directly into the brightness of his television. Instead of sitting over Bloom’s shoulder, we ourself stare flatly into the breakfast news just as he does. The shot places bloom to the side with a laptop next to him and his eyes fixed on the same thing that occupies the centre of our vision. We are brought into his world, how in this small apartment he owns very little and how with the lights off there is nothing there that matters to him apart from the talk of the news personalities which dominate his world (when in a studio itself he says, “It looks so much more real on television”). We have to marvel how bright and spectacular it is compared to his dismal home, how easy and carefree their knowledge and segment-filling chatter is compared to his autism-spectrum distanced and friendless world.

Such wonderful and characterising framing continues throughout the film with a particular highlight in which Bloom breaks into a house in order to film the results of a horrific murder only seconds before. Bloom runs through the house and we see general shots of the house, we see his face and his adrenaline and we see the viewscreen of his camera as he pans through the blood and debris. Never once do we as the viewer look directly at the crime scene. We see what Bloom sees through his viewscreen and nothing else of the actual bodies and blood. We do this because this is what Bloom sees. He doesn’t have a normal perspective of these scenes, nor is weighed down by an empathy for the victims, he sees this event as an opportunity for an amazing piece of film, something that he can profit from and so the viewer sees everything the same way. Only later when the film is replayed in the editing room do we see the scene as it would normally be filmed. Only then can Bloom and the news editors reflect on what actually happened and what they are actually looking at.

5) It could be said that once villains (especially Disney villains) were identifiable by their ugliness and physical disfigurement, demonising the old and disabled. Now in a pardigm of our understanding of developmental conditions, bad people aren’t born bad because they were cursed or born under the wrong star, they just pace somewhere on the autistic spectrum. The inference is clear without the condition ever being named. Whether this is right or wrong, it gets to the heart of what is happening in the film.

In the film, Lou is someone who has problems and in the first act again and again reaches out to those around him to try to find a mentor to find purpose in his life and find a job. We don’t really know anything about him but we know from what he says later that he doesn’t have much of a formal education. The sad thing is that, hey, it’s the recession and nobody wants to mentor you or give you a job or invite you in. Quite the opposite in fact.

When we meet him, Lou is already a bad person, but it’s strongly implied that if the recession hardened world would allow him to have any job, any part of the world, that there could be some kind of hope for him but there isn’t. And what does a harsh world do to a person who has no empathy? What does the internet and our self-help business-management-bullshit speak make of this person? Unfortunately it makes him terrifying.

We can see again and again that where choices are offered that some people make the wrong choice for personal gain. When a car crashes and catches fire, the cops try to pull the woman free. When Lou sees this, he pulls over and looks. An ambulance chasing cameraman hops out of a van and starts filming. The cameraman is a moral entity making an immoral choice. When Lou tries to learn what the cameraman is doing instead of helping, he is without empathy or morals but taking the first step down a path towards further egotism, further towards taking what he wants rather than earning or asking for it and further down the path to becoming the titular ghoulish monster. Further in the film we can see those who are choosing to make the wrong choices and others, like Lou, who are unable to distinguish the right choice from the wrong one to begin with. It’s not just Lou who falls into the second camp.

The moral centre finally emerges in Rick, who makes the wrong choices because he has no other choice. The cast is fantastic, Gyllenhaal is a virtuoso but even so it’s worth taking time to mention just how good Riz Ahmed is and how ready he is to become one of Britain’s hollywood regulars.

The plot isn’t necessarily the best and sort of chickens out of a resolution (imagine Scarface except the film ends after Manny’s death) but this is a quite incredible, indelible, magnificently cinematic film with a harsh Seventies grit. I wouldn’t be surprised if within two years this and Interstellar are the films of note for this year. If you can see it, go.

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