The current fall movie season has been reminding me of a discussion I’ve been having regarding the state of modern horror. While I don’t feel horror is dead – far from it – I do see where some of the criticisms come from- namely that there don’t seem to be many films out there that play on contemporary fears, and just go the boogeyman route. To those who’ve argued that point, I offer this season’s one-two punch of David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl and Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut Nightcrawler.
Right about now, I suspect many of you are now going “wait a minute: how is Nightcrawler horror? Isn’t it just Jake Gyllenhaal filming crimes?”
You’d be right, but honestly, I’d still make the case for that being a fairly disturbing premise. To elaborate on that pitch, Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a former thief trying to find a new career for himself. He hits on an idea one night when he comes upon a flaming car wreck, and discovers the career of nightcrawlers – people who film footage to sell to news stations. Lou is intrigued and quickly begins to establish himself, taking the guidance of news director Nina (Rene Russo) to heart – people want to see blood and misery, and it means more to them when it happens to the ‘nice’ people of the world.
Probably Lou’s biggest strength in this job is his determination. Unfortunately, it’s also his biggest problem, as his drive to place himself at the top of the game leads him into increasingly unethical situations, from entering property illegally, to tampering with crime scenes, and worse – all in the pursuit of delivering the ultimate footage no one else can top.
Like Gone Girl, Nightcrawler is a movie that works as horror on two main ideas. The first is the idea of just how far some people will go to get what they want. In this regard, Gyllenhaal delivers a downright chilling performance as Lou – striking an unsettling balance between cold detachment and driven ambition. Probably the most unsettling thing about the role- and easily one of its most disturbing elements – is just how restrained Gyllenhaal is in maintaining that balance. Even when filming people dying in front of him, his face remains eerily placid, while his eyes are lit up with a thrill that his voice only hints at with contained eagerness.
The other idea the film explores is just how easily people can use media to manipulate and mislead others. One particular area that I commend this film on is how it addresses this theme while also turning it on itself. At the start of the movie, Russo’s character is treated as being more morally questionable compared to Gyllenhaal – she is the one who looks at his attempts to get in the field and encourages him in terms of what’s shocking and will hook in viewers.
Ever the eager one, he takes her advice to an extreme: altering circumstances to better suit what he feels the networks will want, even if it flies in the face of what the networks or the law says are acceptable. Rather than have Nina be the corrupting influence on the driven Lou, she simply opens the door; in fact, as the movie goes on, it appears that Lou brings Nina down with him in his descent. While not a traditional horror story, this story is still very disturbing in terms of what it can say about us as a people nowadays.
Horror and story aside, this is a very well cast thriller all around. I know I already spoke well of him, but it bears repeating – Gyllenhaal is in top form as Bloom, a man who is seemingly detached from everyone around him, but finds a way to force the connection through what he records – even if it means people have to die for him to get there. He’s an alarmingly plausible poster child for the phrase ‘the ends justify the means’ and he’s as interesting to watch as he is disturbing. In the supporting cast, Rene Russo and Bill Paxton are in probably some of the best roles they’ve had in years.
Alongside Russo’s morally conflicted director, Paxton is memorable as another nightcrawler whose attempts to work alongside Lou are taken by the latter as a rivalry. The other big standout in this cast, however, goes to Riz Ahmed as Rick, Lou’s hired assistant. Like Nina, Rick is another character who is first lured by Lou’s drive to succeed, but begins to wonder at what cost. Ahmed plays off of Gyllenhaal very well, and provides an interesting sort of conscience character here: he’s far from perfect, and we can’t blame him for embracing some of what Lou has to offer, but we also share in his eventual shock and disgust at just how far his employer is willing to go to succeed.
The movie does have a few problems going for it – I will admit that – though it still holds up well despite them. Honestly, about the most I can really say as a problem with the movie is that it could do with some tightening up, and polish on the script (also by Gilroy). The former being primarily only a problem in the first act, in which some scenes stretch for too long, or could have been cut. The latter being more of an issue in the second half, when the movie tends to hammer its moral points home a bit too bluntly. It’s a very valid point to make, don’t get me wrong, but there are a few points where it gets a little too on the nose.
Still, for a first time directorial offering, Gilroy is off to a very promising start. Even with the issues in the script, he directs it very well for a first time out. There’s a large stretch of the third act, in particular where he does a phenomenal job of building up tension. It’s not a quick moment, either; the sequence is a solid stretch of escalating dread that Gilroy and editor John Gilroy keep taut from the moment the cameras come on until the assignment is over.
Is this the best movie I’ve seen this year? No. Is it among the best I’ve seen so far? Actually, yes. It’s a well made, well acted look at both a genuinely fascinating character as well as an interesting if unsettling message about people and what gets their attention. With this to go off of, I’m genuinely curious to see what Gilroy may have ahead for us in the future.
This is a film I will likely be exploring in the future in greater depth (that time there MAY be spoilers, you’ve been warned). In the meantime, I can honestly say if you have any interest, it’s worth giving it a watch. It won’t be a happy time, but it will be a genuinely interesting one.
Yeah, I normally don’t tend to be in the film section of this site – but this one merited the exception.
Till next time.
-Top notch performances, especially by Gyllenhaal
-Some great direction paired with an interesting, if disturbing, character study
-First act could stand to be tightened up
-The moral discussion near the end occasionally feels too on the nose