(Nightcrawler SPOILERS ahead)
It’s High Irony Week here at JASON STAEBLER IS DEAD. Or at least it’s turned out to be so. In the midst of my recent essay on the merits of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s Birdman, I failed to mention one of the great unintentional (?) moments of synchronicity at the screening I attended at a local AMC branch. Before their films, the theater plays the now-standard batch of commercials and pseudo-promos for all sorts of upcoming films, tv shows, cell phones, erectile dysfunction lollipops, etc. followed by the official-type trailers. And so, in retrospect, it was entirely fitting that one of the final ads before Birdman (a film about a Hollywood actor’s quest for authenticity and redemption on the New York stage, and the concurrent loathing by the local stage and journalism veterans for said tactic) was for a Fathom Events one night only videocast of James Franco’s much-reviled turn in the recent Broadway run of Of Mice and Men. Insert joke about Franco’s particular brand of meta-meta-humor and its far-reaching power over the ads placed before the year’s most prominent meta-narrative film.
But brother, it wasn’t until yesterday afternoon that I realized the extent of this pre-show promo reel’s wicked power. And all it took was Jake Gyllenhaal to help me make the connection.
In the tradition of other notable Lonely Guy Broodingly Drives the Streets of Los Angeles flicks like The Driver, Drive, and Collateral, Nightcrawler can, at first blush, come off like more of the same. There’s the enigmatic cypher of a leading man in Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal), the would-be audience surrogate/voice of conscience in Louis’s intern turned accomplice Rick (Riz Ahmed), the L.A. cops hot on the trail of the encroaching corruption (including former Wire matron Michael Hyatt…and you KNOW that if Brianna Barksdale is after you, you’re in trouble). And, of course, there’s the gritty neon jungle of the city at night, a character in its own right (see Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself for a comprehensive chronicle of this rich on-screen tradition). But there’s more going on here than a simple rehash of the past.
After penning a string of films (including his brother Tony’s Bourne Legacy), Dan Gilroy embarks on his maiden directorial voyage having dealt with his share of damaged male egos. But his work on Tarsem Singh’s The Fall might be the most instructive in charting his aim in Nightcrawler, as those aforementioned well-worn Los Angeles tropes are distorted through a nightmare filter that dissipates the calculated cool of bravado of Cruise, Foxx, and Gosling. As detailed in Tad Friend’s recent New Yorker article, Gilroy drew much of his initial inspiration from the exploits of tabloid legend Weegee, so collaborating with longtime Paul Thomas Anderson DP Robert Elswit allows him to plum similar depths of lurid, transgressive glamor.
In outings like There Will Be Blood, 8MM, Syriana and Michael Clayton (another Tony Gilroy production) Elswit displayed a master’s aptitude for manipulating deep blacks, heavily borrowing from the prime 70’s aesthetics of the original Prince of Darkness, the late Gordon Willis. But in films like Magnolia and The Town, he also employs a gliding dynamism that counterpoints the enveloping darkness. The full range of his visual palate is on display in Nightcrawler. Louis’s nocturnal stalking (Gilroy has compared him to a coyote coming down from the hills to hunt his prey) feels utterly menacing, greatly abetted by the deadened ash lighting reflecting off of Gyllenhaal’s emaciated face (he lost 30 pounds to play the role.) But just as the noir atmosphere threatens to swallow the characters, the camera circles Louis’s car as he plots his next move, and then we’re off on one of many car chases on the way to the next crime scene. And one of the standout sequences of the film (both from a visual and story standpoint) comes in what might be its most sustained brightly lit scenes, as the camera glides along with Louis as he himself glides through the posh mansion where a triple homicide has taken place. The whole thing is a visual tour de force; much like Weegee’s oeuvre, you’re alternately seduced and repelled by what you see.
But Nightcrawler’s dark beating heart is Gyllenhaal, channeling a bit of Norman Bates and a whole lotta Rupert Pupkin as the ultimate opportunistic husk that is Lou Bloom. Like Pupkin, almost no background info is provided for Louis; he simply appears in the first scene, lifting copper pipe and chain link fences from a construction site, assaulting a private security guard and stealing his watch, and hustling his ill-gotten wares to another construction site. And like Pupkin, his sponge-like nature defines him more than any other trait. It’s appropriate that the first shot of Nightcrawler is an empty billboard at night, for Louis is that same blank canvas, waiting for something, anything to fill him out. Throughout the film, he spouts almost nothing but business school bromides and motivational speaker greatest hits. As he tells Rene Russo (who plays Nina, the aging program director at the lowest rated of the local network affiliates), he spends all day on his computer, absorbing information, soaking up whatever will fill the hollow center where his soul should be.
In my aforementioned Birdman essay, I examined the career crossroads at which Edward Norton arrived, when Hollywood culture began to alter its strategy for starmaking. Jake Gyllenhaal is a prime example of the new star system, fraught as it is with tone-deaf corporate philosophy. After his breakout role in Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal bumped around in smaller films for a few years before being thrust into the blockbuster game with The Day After Tomorrow. Eventually, Hollywood made a big bet on him as the pumped up lead in Prince of Persia, but that logic displayed a fundamental misunderstanding of his eccentric base appeal. He’s played hunky alpha-male in several films since, but his best work has taken full advantage of his Karloffian brow, his slightly off-kilter voice, and his penetrating eyes. David Fincher recognized this when he cast Gyllenhaal as intrepid boy detective Robert Graysmith in Zodiac. Ostensibly the hero of the piece, Graysmith is mostly a frustrated cartoonist, opportunistic at every step, obsessive to the point of destroying his family life. And as Robert Downey’s Paul Avery notes several times, he’s more of a creepy kid who keeps looming over him, and just not that likeable of a person.
But it took his collaborations with Denis Villeneuve to draw out some of Gyllenhaal’s most fascinating work. In Prisoners, he appears to return to beefcake roles as the brooding, taciturn Detective Loki. But in his pursuit of two missing girls, it’s revealed that the muscular exterior is just a disguise for a damaged, obsessive man within. Enemy pushes things further, with Gyllenhaal’s Adam a somewhat pedestrian community college instructor who thinks that he’s discovered his doppleganger. I won’t give away much about the plot, but the dark night of the soul that Gyllenhaal enters to play thee two characters is both enthralling and horrifying, and totally lacking in movie star gloss.
If Enemy is the dark night of one man’s soul, Nightcrawler presents an endless night in the absence of a soul. That 30 pound loss hollows out Gyllenhaal’s face so that his already probing eyes become eerie and monstrous. And he accentuates this creepiness by playing Lou as a wide-eyed believer in his own bullshit. There’s an edgy, erratic edge to his performance (“feral” as Gilroy put it) as he repeatedly shows himself incapable of anything resembling a human conversation. When Rick and Nina try to engage him on a purely personal level, he rebuffs them with his savant-level rat a tat tat patter, reminding them that everything in his life is a move toward another level of success.
And this is where we finally come back to that AMC pre-show promo reel. Because it took me a second trip in a week to appreciate the full impact of another ad in that reel, one which points toward what Nightcrawler is really getting at. The ad itself is a finalist for Sprite’s 2014 student film competition. Dubbed What We Need (you can view it here), it presents a mini-manifesto for the 21st century, as its hip young characters speak of people telling them that things aren’t like they used to be (the implication is job security and stability), but how that’s great because it’s their time, their chance to make their own opportunity.
On the surface, Nightcrawler plays as a grandson of Network in its harsh indictment of the media. Nina is Diana Chistensen once she’s aged into Max Shumacher, desperate to remain relevant even as she retains her cutthroat tabloid edge. It’s her impending sweeps period job insecurity that allows Lou’s most heinous crime scene exploitations to take place, and which bankroll him into pseudo-celebrity status. (Credit, too, to Kevin Rahm as beleaguered news director Frank Kruse. Between this and his role as Teddy Chaugh-guh-guh on Mad Men, he’s cornering the market on being exasperated at the machinations of cutthroat ciphers.) And much as The King of Comedy commented on the modern toxicity of fame by ironically celebrating Rupert Pupkin’s achievements, Nightcrawler plays Lou at his worst in thrilling fashion. Two of his most morally egregious episodes are backed by soaring, fist-pumping music, and the climactic car chase is so expertly cut that you’re momentarily fooled into morphing Lou into Frank Bullitt.
And all of this is part and parcel of the film’s message. But after the show, I kept coming back to that Sprite ad (viewable here.) Because at heart, Louis Bloom is the ideal, the avatar of the modern corporate, Silicon Valley, bullshit quasi-Libertarian imperative. It’s no knock on Merlin Camozzi, the ad’s director, but in this unstable economy, he’s inadvertently advancing the hype that Zuckerberg, Brin, Page, and other Palo Alto bigwigs have been pushing for years. In their worlds, we’re all freelancers, hustling 24/7, willing to constantly take the initiative at all costs. In this technocratic dream, we must always be innovating, disrupting, and whatever other buzzwords they use to sell a life where the social contract has been abolished in the name of PROGRESS.
Early in the film, Bill Paxton’s rival crime scene videographer warns the neophyte Lou that the job is the bottom end of existence. But Lou is thrives on the job because he has nothing else. He delights in filling every moment of his existence with chasing after the next lead. And as he shows throughout the film (especially in the climax), everything for him is a business transaction, the embodiment of the old business axiom that “if you’re not growing, you’re dying.” Like many in our current society, he has been educated to believe that salvation will only take place in commitment to one’s job, that true fulfillment is only possible in becoming a cutthroat disrupter (sorry, that word again.) And that manic obsession pays off at each step. As he gains in stature at the station, his wardrobe becomes more refined, he slicks his mop of hair back, and becomes fluent in the parlance of the trade. He steadily outmaneuvers the station veterans, and all through being self-taught online. MOOC advocates would drool at the success story that is Louis Bloom. But even as reaches his grandest moment of success at the film’s conclusion (three interns and two vans!), there’s nothing at his core. He merely remains the vessel for the message, a bag of flesh and bones broadcasting corporate catch phrases and talking points in place of anything resembling real interaction. Nightcrawler shows us how darkly thrilling that message can be, but it’s also a cautionary broadside against the hyper-driven, decidedly non-human-centric thrum of progress that threatens to crash over us like the next wave.