Monday, November 3, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: NIGHTCRAWLER Is A Movie About A Monster, With A Career-Best Performance from Jake Gyllenhaal

When the first cryptic teaser for Nightcrawler hit the scene, I was instantly sold. The captivating intensity and eerily believable nature of Jake Gyllenhaal's Louis Bloom was all I needed to keep the film on my radar. After seeing Nightcrawler, I understand why they decided to go that way with the initial marketing. Though the film positions itself as a viciously satirical breakdown of news media and the public's desire for violent stories (it is that, but it's not where the film is focused), the real backbone of the story is a character study of Louis and how terrifying a person he is.

Luckily, Gyllenhaal makes it work like gangbusters. This is one of his best performances, but I can understand how a lot of people would be unable to follow him as a protagonist. Louis Bloom is a textbook sociopath: well-spoken and pleasant on the outside, but filled with an utter lack of morality and concern for human life on the inside. He freely admits to disliking people and will use anyone he can to further his own personal goals. It's a deplorable character, but Gyllenhaal creates something so darkly compelling that I couldn't get enough of the character. His shark-toothed smile and business seminar lingo would fit just as comfortably coming from a young entrepreneur (which is actually exactly what Louis is), and I have to believe that the film is also making a statement on such individuals.

More than the media or sensationalist reporting, Nightcrawler is a biting examination of the new generation of American workers who will eventually become leaders. Louis doesn't have any kind of college education, but is an avid learner and self-teaches himself countless things via the Internet. He is singular in his drive to obtain exactly what he wants, and as the film progresses, we see the more disturbing lengths to which he'll go to ensure success. What I like about this in a social commentary sort of way is that Louis isn't shown to be an anomaly in these ways. Rene Russo's character, the news station's director Nina, is just as cold when it comes to putting Louis' graphic crime footage on the air. There's definitely a message in play about success coming at the cost of your humanity, but where most films would have a protagonist struggling with these issues in order to create conflict, Nightcrawler presents us with a person who has no moral conundrum at all.

Since the film isn't willing to be completely bleak, Louis does have a partner named Rick (Riz Ahmed) who brings up these dilemmas, but it feels like the filmmakers knew they had to have someone voice those feelings or else the audience would get the impression that we're supposed to be rooting for Louis. They actually do pull that off with at least two scenes of perfectly crafted tension that kept me nervous all the way through. It's a lot like the scene in Psycho when Norman Bates is putting the car in the swamp and it stops sinking. Even though the character we're following is practically a villain, we become tense and want the car to sink, essentially making us vicarious accomplices. The same unnerving participation is present in Nightcrawler, where we find everything Louis is doing awful, but at the same time we don't want him to get caught. I love when a film gets me invested in a character whose methods and ethics (or lack thereof) I wholly disagree with.

Again, a lot of that has to do with Jake Gyllenhaal's performance. While he never does much of anything to make Louis likable, he doesn't need to. This isn't a likable character, but he is a fascinating one. His cool exterior and smooth tongue mask a deeply unsettling loneliness that has transformed into an icy focus on getting what he wants. There are brief moments of understanding when Louis talks about what he wants to do with his life, but it's the deadly initiative he takes that makes him purposefully unapproachable. Even though it's extremely disconcerting, Louis is a grim fairy tale execution of the American Dream. He is a self-made man, and in this country, that's supposed to be something we admire. What we are willing to accept to maintain the illusion of such a dream is something the film seems to be attacking.

I don't know if I can fully recommend Nightcrawler to most people for the simple reason of its monster of a protagonist, but for someone like me, it's exactly the kind of thought-provoking, darker corner of the human animal exploration I love. It's a very quiet movie for the most part, so I can understand why people might label it "boring", but as an examination of one truly disturbed individual, it's fantastic. Gyllenhaal proves that he's one of our finest actors working today, and the character he's given is equally riveting. It's dark, dark stuff, but since I'm a little on the creepy side myself, I find it to be a stimulating experience. Bottom line: don't take grandma to see it.

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