Cutting to the chase, the MCU’s latest superhero extravaganza is rich in action, circus-act set-pieces, and rife with conflict, both political and emotional. It’s the combination of these elements that make the film a stand-out in the realm of superhero cinema. The film isn’t without flaws but the Russo Brothers deftly manage a smorgasbord of plot, character, and action in a way that few could, and that alone is an achievement.
Warning: there may be spoilers below. Proceed with caution.
I’ll start with the flaws. The main complaint with the previous MCU films has been its inability to tell a complete story. The stories here are culled from decades of comic books, which as a medium is defined by its serial nature. This week’s issue is a continuation of last week’s while also being the precursor of next week’s. Film has never really been that way, unless there were planned installments (i.e. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek). The arc created in previous installments is rarely concluded within a single narrative context. In other words, comic book superhero narratives are longer than your typical narrative. They are resolved over the course of several issues, or films, while only black-and-white struggles get resolved. The actuality is, these films prove it is much easier to vanquish a physical enemy than it is to get rid of a metaphysical one (i.e. Steve and Tony’s internal struggles linger long after their enemy has been killed or imprisoned at the end of the movie). So the problem we run into in films such as Captain America: Civil War is one of a structural nature.
What I’m working towards is the reason for the inclusion of characters and moments that don’t necessarily complete the narrative we’re watching, but they add to an existing narrative outside the confines of the current story, or they are planting the seeds for another story to begin.
The most obvious example is the massive shoehorn the Russos employed to wedge the MCU’s returning hero, “Spider-Man”, into Cap’s adventure. When Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark goes to Queens to recruit the high schooler with the superhero abilities, it brings the Civil War storyline to a grinding halt. I am aware that “Spider-Man” was present in the comic book version of the Civil War storyline, but he existed within that world long before the big battle takes place. In this film, he is brought in for three reasons: to give Tony Stark a moment of levity in an otherwise emotionally vulnerable story for “Iron Man”, to provide some humor and fun to the heavy-handed proceedings, and to introduce “Spider-Man” into the MCU. Narratively speaking, he serves no purpose. He doesn’t choose a political side or fight for a reason. He fights because his idol asked him to, which is most dubious considering how well and how long the film sets up the emotional and political reasons for all the characters to fight for their side (except maybe Paul Rudd’s “Ant-Man”, who seems to fight for almost the same reason “Spider-Man” does, albeit on Team Cap).
There are conflicting ideologies at work that truly elevate the story in a way that no Batman v Superman ever could. Both films deal with the collateral damage inflicted upon civilization and the consequences thereof. Where Civil War succeeds is in creating grey areas for the characters to exist within. Steve Rogers understands the ramifications of civilian casualties in the process of stopping the bad guys, but he also understands the agendas of those that would force him to or keep him from taking some necessary risks. Have we learned nothing from the scheming Hydra agents from Winter Soldier? Imagine if they had final say in where, when, and under what circumstances the Avengers were sent into action?
But we are also shown the toll that the events of the previous movies has taken on Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic in this film). The amount of damage resulting from the existence of the Avengers is tremendous and Tony doesn’t want the burden anymore. I’ve seen people writing pieces about the reversed allegiances and the backwards ideologies of the two main characters. This is where that notion of incomplete storylines and serial narratives comes back to bite the MCU. What do we know about Cap? He’s a soldier who fights for truth, justice, and the American way. And we know Iron Man is an arrogant, stubborn loner who revels in the attention of being a superhero and billionaire playboy. So how is it we got to the point where Cap becomes a government outcast and renegade fighter while Iron Man fights for the rights of the government to control the actions of superheroes? You have to read (see) last week’s issue!
The best parts of this film are character moments: interactions between Anthony Mackie’s “Falcon” and Sebastian Stan’s sympathetic, dangerous and conflicted “Winter Soldier”; “Spider-Man” interacting with everyone he meets from the Avengers; Chadwick Boseman’s intense performance as the grieving, vengeful king of Wakanda, T’Challa (A.K.A. the “Black Panther”); Paul Rudd’s what-am-I-doing-here comedic shtick (as well as an amazingly fun action sequence centered around his “Ant-Man” abilities); and one of my favorites, the insecure and frightened performance of Elizabeth Olsen’s “Scarlet Witch”, who carries the burden of causing the catastrophe that sets the story in motion as well as the being the “outcast” of the group because of the intensity of her powers.
The joyous, huge action sequence between the two superhero teams is a much-deserved payoff after we are given ample reasons for each team to fight for their cause. This is why it pays to set-up, set-up, and set-up some more. By the time we have reached the fight, the backstory of political ideologies and emotions have been firmly established. Of the two main fights in the movie, this is the political struggle narratively created into an actual fist-fight, complete with humor and over-the-top action beats. The climactic battle between Cap, Iron Man, and the Winter Soldier is equally rewarding, if not moreso, because this fight embodies the emotional baggage of each character and succeeds in embodying the sheer intensity of an emotional fight. The explosion of emotion that ignites this battle is lit literally from the very first seconds of the film. The fact that we have to wait until the very end to get the payoff makes it even more satisfying.
When we are served a superhero film that combines this many characters with this level of thought and planning, we are all lucky customers. The inherent structure of superhero films begs for the creation of a thousand think-pieces about the nature of story and cinematic narratives, but I’ll leave that to much smarter people and enjoy the ride the Russo’s have given us.
Podcast Episode #10: 9/29/15 – Talking Getting Old, My Disgust with the Internet, Reviewing PARANORMAN as well the the Trailer for THE REVENANT, Slasher Flicks, Football, and other nonsense
I’m back on my Tuesday schedule this week as I hit a milestone….EPISODE 10! I couldn’t have done it without you all. You keep me going. Yes, you.
As usual I ramble about nonsense, including the Pope’s visit, internet stupidity, douchebags with water jugs, football, and slasher movies. I also managed to squeeze in some real movie talk as I reviewed Paranorman (written review here) and discussed the trailer for The Revenant (which can be viewed here).
I stated in my Inside Out review that I really don’t like to critique kids films. They tend to not strive for technical or narrative brilliance (unless it’s Pixar) so it seems silly to pick them apart. But, since I haven’t watched a newer movie in quite some time I’ll come up with some words about a kids flick.
All in all, I dug Paranorman. It doesn’t feature the narrative arc that every other kids movie has where the kid has to discover something about him/herself in order to achieve the goal of the film. There’s a little bit of that in here but it’s not the defining arc. In this movie Norman stays virtually the same throughout the film (for the uninitiated, he can see and speak to ghosts). The film actually critiques the townspeople who don’t believe in his gift and constantly pick on Norman and think he’s a freak. So I suppose you could find an interesting connection to horror films, which this film is a derivative of. In most horror films there’s something or someone threatening to kill or destroy people or the environment or whatever the case may be, and there’s always one person who figures it out and no one believes them until the end. But usually by then all of those people are dead, but we all know they had it coming. Humorously, Norman is shown watching horror movies throughout the film and appears entranced yet unaffected by them. Such is the life of the weird kid (yours truly included).
The horror homages throughout are definitely a treat for any fan of the genre. I can’t honestly recall every tip of the hat but there is one shot that humorously parodies Halloween and Friday the 13th in the same image, which I quite enjoyed.
I also would like to mention the animation. I have a deep admiration for any filmmaker working in stop-motion animation, not only because of the time and effort it takes to shoot a stop motion film but because of what it adds to the story. It adds a tangible effect to the film that other types of animation can’t boast. Computer generated films are impressive because of what they can conjure up visually while coming close to realism, but because they are done entirely with a computer I find it difficult to engage fully in the animation. They’re still trying to make everything look so real, which makes me look at it in an attempt to judge the realness. I think with any kind of imagery that isn’t filmed reality you’d want the image to pull you in and not show it’s seams. Stop motion goes for an unusual look (which, for my buck, is what animation should be used for) that displays more creativity than the most realistic looking computer generated moose or elf or human.
That’s really all I have to say. It was certainly a fun flick and recommended viewing during the Halloween season.
Podcast: 4/16/15 Episode #6 – Talking Early AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON Reactions, WONDER WOMAN, Plus Two Movie Reviews
Note #1: This episode was recorded on Tuesday, April 14th so I’m behind on the Wonder Woman director carousel news. To update, Patty Jenkins has replaced Michelle MacLaren.
Not a whole lot of movie news took place in the last week so I had to pick and choose a couple things to talk about today. Regardless, I chat about the early screenings on Avengers: Age of Ultron and what we might be in-store for based on the reactions, followed by some Wonder Woman talk to wrap up the superhero news. Then I get into an article on IndieWire that dissects the economic trajectory of It Follows and other independent films in relation to theatrical and VOD service windows. That article can be found here. Finally, I wrap up with a couple reviews, including a lengthy one about Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (which I wrote about here), and a quick one about Disney’s Big Hero 6, and tacked onto the end is, of course, this week’s DVD releases and box-office chatter. Enjoy!
Note #2: I apologize about the low volume of the podcast, my mic volume was set a little lower than usual for some reason. This will be rectified next episode.
I think when reviewing It Follows the consideration of genre has to be mentioned, if not be the focal point of the conversation. So, what I write here will be as much a discussion of critiquing genre (horror, in this case) as much as it will be an analysis of the film.
Now I rarely, if ever, mention the plot of the film in my reviews. It’s sloppy and boring to the reader and I try to avoid it at all costs. But in the case of It Follows it would be tough for me to make my points without giving you a broad overview of the plot. Also, there will be some SPOILERS. Again, I cannot make my points without divulging some of the happenings of the film.
The plot of the film involves a sexual encounter between our protagonist, Jay (played quite well by Maika Monroe) and a random fellow who has a pretty nasty secret to tell her after they have sex (typical, isn’t it?). This moment kicks off the narrative. This fellow essentially abducts our girl and reveals her fate, that being a slow, wordless, plodding entity that walks towards her with the sole intention of killing her. It sounds kind of silly, I know. “So it just walks at her? Big deal.” Agreed, big deal…..on paper. In the early moments of the film we are shown a young woman who has a mysterious fear of something we, the audience, cannot see. What we are shown, however, is her grizzly fate, beautiful and horrific in its presentation. This gives us a framing mechanism with which to carry our fear for Jay through the film. We know what this thing is capable of. Jay spends the rest of the movie running, driving, walking, and hiding from this thing in various states of relaxation and panic.
Writer/director David Robert Mitchell is to be commended for his efforts in creating an actual genre experience. The vast wide shots he employs give us a sense of openness in a very claustrophobic world where danger is literally walking at you every second. The plot is simple, but the way the entity is framed and the synthesized music cues are spot on for creepiness. The use of music and slow-burn score give the audience a sense of impending dread, which hearkens back to the simple score John Carpenter used in Halloween. In fact, the visual style and overall look of the film are directly modeled after Carpenter’s slasher classic. It’s nearly impossible to watch this film and not get a 70’s vibe, which was truly the era of suburban paranoia and unsettling horror cinema. The feel of this film is just wonderful, and I was forced to grade it a bit higher just based on the visceral experience alone.
But, as they say, kids, all good things must come to an end. From here on I’m going to nitpick this film and explain why it could have been so great and yet fails to be. Spoilers and snark ahead.
Note: I’m aware of budgetary constraints and what they can do to a narrative (when actually these constraints have proven to open up creative windows unseen by big-budget films, but that’s a different argument), so take that into account when reading my thoughts.
First, some ground rules for our villain: 1) It walks, and very slowly at that, 2) It can appear to be any person, friend or stranger, 3) It can only be seen by the person it is following, 4) It is affected by the physical world (e.g. doors, windows and trees are physical barriers), 5) Once it kills the person it is after it goes after the previous person who sexually transmitted the curse to them, 6) There is no explanation of its origin or its abilities/weaknesses, 7) Physically harming the entity only causes a momentary pause and does not inflict any damage whatsoever.
So this film begs the question, what would you do in this scenario? First off, you get out of town, right? Not these kids. They choose to hang around, scared shitless of the situation. I, for one (along with any sensible person concerned with their own well-being), would have my head on a swivel. The film demonstrates several scenarios where the audience can see the thing in the background, out of focus, walking toward Jay and she fails to see it til it’s right next to her. Now, I understand this is cinematic tension, but how am I supposed to give a rip about a character unless they display some level of intelligence? If the character isn’t making a valid attempt at self-preservation, then I don’t care if they die. That’s all there is to it. The film whiffs on what could have been a far more paranoia-driven narrative, but instead opts for lyricism. Again, this is Carpenter’s influence, where we see The Shape standing behind characters and staring blankly without their knowledge several times in Halloween, thus ratcheting up the tension. That film works so much better because the characters are unaware of the presence of a threat, meanwhile the characters in this film are well-aware that something is out to get them and they still choose to relax and not take any precautions. So, they just come off as stupid as opposed to innocently unaware and, therefore, more empathetic.
Eventually, Jay convinces her group of loyal friends that she’s not crazy and they decide to head out of town. Where do they go? To a beach-house less than a day’s drive away. Because, honestly, we don’t want to go tooooo far and give this thing too far to walk, it might be too exhausted to mangle her when it reaches her. Upon arriving at the beach-house the group decides to relax and get some sun.
So do you remember in the rules where I said that the entity can appear to be anyone, even a close friend in an attempt to fool you (a la Carpenter’s The Thing) and get close to you? Well, up until this point the thing has appeared as a naked woman, an old woman in a hospital gown, a half-naked cheerleader peeing herself, and a giant man. Not the best use of its abilities to shape-shift and fool the victim, wouldn’t you think? As the kids are sun-baking the entity emerges from the trees behind them and makes its way towards Jay. In this instance the thing has taken the appearance of one of her friends, who is off playing in the water. We are treated to yet another moment of our characters not displaying any attempt at survival since, once again, they decide not to check behind them for just about the duration of the film. This winds up being the first moment the entity comes in contact with Jay because she isn’t looking. Now, to stop and think about this for a second, the only time this thing gets near her is when it takes the form of her friend and for some reason the filmmakers chose NOT to give us a truly tense moment where the main character is fooled into thinking the thing is actually her friend. Nope, it goes unseen until it strikes and then they run and hide in a little boat-house no more than 50 feet from their beach chairs, which is apparently sensible when your only sensible and apparent escape is to get into the open world and leave this thing in your dust.
These are just a few moments that defy logic and drain the intelligence right from the film. I won’t get into the specifics of the ending, but it’s bothersome. At just about the one hour mark I leaned over to my girlfriend in the theater and whispered “There’s no way for the movie to end.” Unfortunately, the film takes a stab at a climax, but it’s all lip-service. I’m ok with characters doing fairly stupid things in horror films, it happens quite often. But when the audience has been made perfectly aware that there is no way to get away from this thing except to abide by the rules and pass it along, what is the point of attempting to have a physical stand-off with it? Honestly, the scene could have been cut and the movie could have ended with the knowledge that our characters are not safe and this will haunt them forever and it would have been perfectly fine. Instead, we have to sit through a non-scary, boring, pointless climactic scene where no positive outcome can occur. It’s a narrative stalemate.
So, my question is, considering all the positive reviews and the 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes, are we giving this film a pass because it’s a genre film? I mean, it’s different from every other horror movie we see in the theaters these days (non-remake, non-sequel, no hauntings/exorcisms/ghosts/dolls) but does that mean we have to praise this that much just for being something different? If I had to assign it a grade I’d say it’s somewhere in the C+/B- range, which is being fairly generous. I guess this begs the question, do critics and people hold genre films to a different standard? I’ve heard people say “It’s a good action movie” about whatever random flick, but the caveat is that the recommendation is based solely on its genre and not overall quality. If you’re trying to recommend an action movie to a friend, or vice/versa, this is a perfectly acceptable description. But for a working film critic to grade this film that high seems like a cop-out. The film simply poses too many questions and answers them far too illogically for it to be considered that great. In fact, I consider my grade to be a tad high, based solely on my enjoyment of the visceral feeling of the film.
This film has a creepy premise and a talented director at the helm, as well as a truly unsettling score, which is why it’s so frustrating to see it fall into narrative laziness. The concept of the film alone is enough to write a thousand essays on. If they would have expounded more on the subtext of the villain/curse and gave the characters a sense of intelligence and survival I feel like this could have been great. It works in a rudimentary/cinematic sense, but I’m afraid if you delve into anything beneath the surface you’ll find yourself asking too many questions and not hearing an intelligent response.
If anyone has seen the film feel free to comment and start a discussion. This film is worthy of that.
Dark, bleak and still. These are three words that categorize the feeling that permeates Foxcatcher. I would be hard-pressed to say people would “enjoy” this film in the classical sense. Despite the fact that both main characters, Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo), have won Olympic gold medals for wrestling they seem quietly reserved and sort of sad. And that’s basically how the film makes you feel.
They wordlessly go through their training exercises, and Mark, in particular, seems to do nothing but sit around wait for the next training session. At least, that’s what we’re shown. That is, until he meets John du Pont (Steve Carell), the filthy rich oddity that causes the lives of these two brothers to change forever. The film at first gives you the sense that it’s about Mark’s journey back to the Olympic podium, but really it’s about the pairing of the Schultz family with the du Pont world and what becomes of the two of them as a result. It is safe to say neither family will be the same by the end, especially if you know the facts of the actual events this film is based on.
Mark and John are presented as similar people: Mark trains as a wrestler as a way of impressing while separating himself from his older bother, meanwhile John focuses his attention on becoming something his disapproving mother never allowed him to be and something he never had; an athlete and a father-figure. The thematic tension lies in the struggle between their internal similarities and their external differences. Both men wish to be their own man. Mark has the physique and the freedom (no attachments) to be an Olympic champion. While John lacks these qualities, he has the means and the power to attain his goals. The way the two characters play off each other is basically the story.
There is a permeating sense of dread throughout the film, which is embodied in the character of John and played patiently creepy by Carell. There is never a moment between John and the Schultz’s where you feel John isn’t a predator of some sort, and perhaps that comes partially from Carell’s “Hannibal Lector”-esque performance and partially from the way rich people are generally portrayed in film. We’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of movies that center around the rich being naughty with their wealth and sophistication. I think it’s worth pointing out that du Pont isn’t evil simply because he’s rich, but rather because of his upbringing. There are a few scenes where he interacts with his mother, including one particular non-verbal interaction that tells a bigger part of their history, that basically reduce him to a child seeking his mother’s approval. This is much the same way Mark seeks the approval of his brother while simultaneously wishing to be his own person.
This psychological angle is the strength of that one character and the weakness of the rest, as there are really only two characters with any depth. Tatum plays Mark as a one-note, somber child waiting to throw a tantrum. He is a child who is physically able to act-out, but rarely does, instead choosing to brood and pout in his room with his toys. There is also a team of wrestler’s that assemble on the du Pont residence that somewhat resemble a stable of horses, which is a common metaphor shown in several places during the film, but are not shown as real people. David is the only character other than John that has a multi-dimensional motivation, as he is a family man and he wishes to help his brother on top of honoring his employer.
Again, it’s tough to say I “enjoyed” this movie as much as I would say it was a decently compelling story that’s driven by Carell’s performance and the character of John du Pont. If director Bennett Miller had fleshed out the rest of the cast it would be a better watch, but it’s still a solid movie soaked in dread and bleakness. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
It’s pretty rare that we experience a movie with a singular narrative, devoid of subplots and ancillary characters. Screenwriting generally involves an intricate layering of characters and stories, all with their own motivations and narrative arcs that unfold throughout the film’s running time. Whiplash is that rare film that excises the outer rings of story and focuses on one thing and one thing alone: the price of excellence.
There are two main performances in the film, the student (Miles Teller) and the teacher (J.K. Simmons), both of which are exceptional. This plays into the wall-eye vision of the film, utilizing a bare-bones number of characters. It is protagonist versus antagonist in the truest form. The student only wishes to be great; to be the greatest jazz drummer of all time. The teacher wishes to push the student to a level beyond what he feels is “greatness”; to transcendence.
In noting the myopic scope of the film, it is worth paying attention not only to the narrative focus but also the aesthetic focus. Writer/Director Damien Chazelle employs an amplified single plane of focus throughout the film that aids the theme. This means that you may notice several scenes where a character or an object, be it in the foreground or the background, will be in extreme focus while the opposite plane will be completely blurred. In essence, you will notice the world around the character or object but you can only clearly see the object in focus. Much like the main characters, your mind can only focus on one single thing. This aesthetic, which usually goes unnoticed but still affects the unconscious viewing experience, is another component that adds to the overall composition, and it is a pretty impressive feat. I love when the aesthetic of the film serves the text. It is pretty rare these days.
I realize I’m sounding a bit textual and theoretical here, but I still feel it is worth noting in case you watch the film a second time.
Anywho……I also think it’s worth noting how compelling this story is because of these combined elements, and what an interesting experiment it is to compare this movie to the average film viewing experience. The film has a moderately short running time (107 minutes) yet it tells a complete story and contains compelling subject matter despite telling only one story and featuring only two main characters. Think of how many films you’ve seen with a similar running time, or those that run longer. These films are often bogged down with expository scenes and peripheral characters and subplots that generally derail the overall product. Whiplash features none of these elements, preferring to strip the conventional film form down to its necessities. No filler.
I think it goes without saying that the music is top-notch. I think even if you don’t enjoy jazz you will get a better sense of the great artistry of this musical genre.
For my buck, the most interesting aspect of the film is the thematic outcome of the story. The narrative begs the questions “How far will you go to achieve greatness? What price are you willing to pay?” I think the best part is that the film does not answer these questions, but instead asks “Is it worth it?” The characters perform their duties in the philosophical debate, but the film ambiguously displays the results, instead leaving the outcome up to each viewer. There are few scenes of exposition, outside of two scenes that explain character motivation that are placed at pivotal times during the film. The climax is one of the most exhilarating scenes you will ever see in film, and yet barely a word is spoken.
I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to watch a film build tension and character to an absolute crescendo and then allow it to unfold in a series of images that speak louder than any monologue or fight or argument could ever achieve. This film is an exercise in simplicity that achieves a level of complexity few films ever attain.
Podcast: 2/25/15 Episode #4 – Oscar Round-Up, Two Movie Reviews, Plus DVD Releases and Box-Office Talk
Today I ramble about some of the stupid nonsense on the Oscar telecast and the winners/losers before reviewing two movies, Nightcrawler and The Theory of Everything, both of which I reviewed and can be read here and here. My brain was clearly up my butt so forgive my forgetfulness and general lazy sound at times during this episode. I’ll pick it up next week. Enjoy!
If you’re looking for a film about Stephen Hawking that deals a little more heavily with science and math then you should probably watch a documentary on the man. This film is concerned with the life and romantic struggles of the famed astrophysicist and churns out an interesting if not semi-vanilla biopic that is anchored by a great physical performance by Eddie Redmayne.
The most interesting aspect of the film is definitely the physical transformation of the character as he gradually succumbs to ALS and the toll it takes on his life with his wife, Jane (Felicity Jones). I think the film is better served because it is based on the book written by Jane Hawking instead of an outside biographer. In this story we see imperfect people who deal with an immensely difficult situation the best they can, but we learn that a brilliant mind and a headstrong, intelligent woman can only handle so much. The film does a wonderful job of showing that being stricken with an ailment affects more than just the infected person, it spreads a wider circle of influence.
The main issue I could point to is a lack of a compelling conflict. The world knows that Stephen Hawking has ALS and is still alive, so the disease poses no life threat in the film. We also know that he became a world renowned astrophysicist and is considered one of the greatest minds of our lifetime, so there is no tension in his scientific endeavors. And if you’ve read even the synopsis you know that his marriage to Jane does not last, so there’s no question as to whether their marriage will survive the incidents in the film. In this aspect it would be a story better suited to a documentary.
That does not mean that there is an emotional divide between the film and the audience, quite the contrary. What is compelling in this narrative are the trials of Jane and the emotional state of Stephen as they deal with his physical decay and learn to cope with various medical instruments and unique inventions. As the film progresses you begin to feel the charm of these two characters and the sadness they both feel despite Stephen’s professional success, of which he owes much to Jane and her tireless help. There is a connection you can feel and it is sad to witness their professional and romantic trajectories diverge over time.
There is a way of telling a story where the conclusion is foregone and somehow it is still compelling, but it is a rare feat. I think this film toes the line of accomplishing that but falls a little short. It is a nicely written, if not a little predictable in the way situations are set-up, and a beautifully photographed film featuring a great leading performance and a good female protagonist. And maybe that is all this film could be, especially considering the subject and the material available on him. While the film fails to attain the greatness of its subject, there is nothing wrong with hanging your hat on those positive attributes.
Welcome to the new American dream! It can be said that Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is to the 2010’s what Mary Harron’s American Psycho was to the 1980’s. In fact, it’s kind of a shame that title was previously taken as this film could easily have carried it.
This film begins and ends on the shoulders of Jake Gyllenhaal and he carries it with an unrelenting seriousness that is at first endearing and humorous, but finishes as something completely different. Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou Bloom, is the perfect embodiment of what the American dream has evolved into: get your shot no matter the cost. To a world that is infatuated with the grotesque underbelly of American society (I’m looking at you, reality TV viewers) this movie is like a mirror. We watch the deplorable behavior of the sociopathic lead character and recoil in its weirdness and disturbing lack of conscience without realizing that we gleefully devour the kind of footage he schemes to get and thus we are the reason the footage has so much value. If people didn’t watch the type of videos Lou Bloom films there wouldn’t be a market for it. Plain and simple.
There’s a line in the film when Lou’s sidekick, Rick (played by Riz Ahmed), has had enough of his behavior and tells him “You don’t understand people”. Lou takes this admonishing without comment. Later in the film, Lou eventually fires back “What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them?” In watching him manipulate people scene after scene we learn that Lou understands people quite well, better than most people, and in all honestly he hates that he needs them. He uses Rick as well as the TV news director, Nina (Rene Russo), to get ahead in his business. From the outset Lou has a business plan, he simply doesn’t have a business. But when he finds out he has a knack for manipulating both people and the reality in front of his camera, he goes all-in and his success steadily increases.
What is also interesting is the character of Nina. She is not so different from Lou, though she lacks his manipulative ability. Knowing full well that what Lou has filmed has broken moral and legal codes does not stop her from airing it, and therefore she feeds into his behavior as much as the rest of us. Nina is, essentially, a proxy for the public’s viewing appetite. Her mantra about the news is to think of it as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”. That’s what sells because that’s what people will watch, and both of these characters understand this. Russo is really great in this part.
This film is very dark and not likely for everyone, though I found many moments encased in black humor. It’s beautifully shot and the score is great with some tremendously thrilling music underscoring some of the more active scenes, including car chases and such. Gyllenhaal was robbed of an Oscar nomination for sure as Lou Bloom is quite an exquisite creation, though at times he’s a bit one-note. As a driven, ambitious character he’s right up there with the most insidious, sociopathic characters ever put on film. I found myself both disgusted and rooting for him at various times throughout the film, which is definitely a testament to the character and the writing of Dan Gilroy.