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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Nightcrawler


U.S.: Dan Gilroy, 2014


I. Moonrise on Sunset (and Elsewhere)

Nightcrawler is a movie mostly about Los Angeles at night, mostly about the times when a lot of the city closes down and the streets go black, and freelance newshounds and videographers come crawling out of the dark corners and racing through the dark streets to take pictures of  disaster and bloodshed and mayhem — which they peddle to the noisier TV channels and news programs: all those second or third tier (or less) stations  whose (not always) unspoken motto is “If it bleeds, it leads.” It’s a good movie: tough, eloquent, very well-shot (by Robert Elswit)—a rousing little show that tries to tap the same sort of sleaze-scraping, unsparing vein as Ace in the Hole (about newspapers and sensationalistic journalism),  Sweet Smell of Success (about newspaper gossip columnists) and A Face in the Crowd (about populist right-wing TV). A lot of the time, it succeeds. Sometimes sweetly, and sometimes with a spray of acid.

I wouldn’t say that Nightcrawler — which sounds like a horror movie title and, in a way, is one — is better that any of its models or even in their class. (It isn’t.) But it’s certainly  better — better shot, better acted and definitely better-written — than most of the movies that purport to show us crime, action and modern life in a half way real, pseudo-contemporary urban milieu, The director/writer, Dan Gilroy, comes from a  family of writers.  He’s the son of Frank (“The Subject was Roses“) and the brother of Tony (Michael Clayton and the Bourne movies and one of this show’s producers). And he’s right in their family tradition. His movie is well-plotted and tightly structured and tensely done (thanks probably to another Gilroy, Dan’s twin brother and editor John). The dialogue is way better than average: smooth and confident and upfront and sometimes really nasty. It sounds like the racy, snappy, viper-tongued  lingo of pros who know they’re stepping over the boundaries, and transgressing humanistic values  and guess what, don’t care. This is what the public wants, they seem to be shrugging and saying, and damn it all, what you want you get — and what you get, you pay for.

II. Creepy-crawly

The movie focuses on one character who‘s probably the nastiest of them all, a  glib, tireless, super-nosy  amateur video guy (though not amateur for long), who stumbles on this hard-boiled little world and metier of free-lance video-peddling, and starts parleying his chutzpah and recklessness and almost shocking lack of scruples to crawl, maul and claw his way to the top. His name is Louis Bloom, and he‘s played, with sass and bite and a sick little half-grin, by Jake Gyllenhaal. Is it just an accident that Lou’s character name is so reminiscent of Leopold Bloom, James Joyce‘s Dublin witness character in his great-day-in-the life novel “Ulysses“? (Modern movie kids will probably instead recall Gene Wilder’s Leo Bloom in The Producers.)

Gyllenhaal — whose best credits include Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain and Prisoners — plays his Bloom  with so little seductive actor’s vanity and such shamelessness and venom, that you almost want to applaud the actor for taking us on such an anti-ego trip. His Leo is a night creeper with a pallid unhealthy persona, wide boyish glittering eyes, and a dead, creepy smile that makes him look a bit like a snake who came in from the cold. He speaks in what is almost pop-media code: lacing his come-ons and put-downs and hard-sells with a fast ooze of rapid deadpan patter and a twisted lexicon of snappy pop aphorisms that he’s scraped off of TV and the internet.

Lou  has an almost religious lack of morals. When we first meet him, he‘s stealing scrap metal,  assaulting a guard and then peddling his loot to a contemptuous scrap-dealer who brushes off  Lou’s  pitch for a steady  job by asking why in Hell he should employ a thief.  The movie asks — or has Lou ask for it — “Why the hell not?” In this world of sometimes heartless voyeurism and all-embracing greed, who the hell cares?

When Lou stumbles later on that little company of camera bugs scuttling around a bloody car-wreck, and talks to cynical, lore-dispensing old pro Joe Loder (Bill Paxton, spot on)  he immediately decides to go out and grab a camera, and troll for some salable mayhem himself. Soon, he finds a buyer:  a hard-bitten, sexily dressed TV news producer with a stripper’s name, Nina Romina,  who has the hard-shell, glamorous veneer of a top-rate Madame just opening up a new bordello. Nina  (played tangily by Rene Russo, Dan‘s wife) right away spots Bloom‘s energy and determination and perhaps his lack of scruples. They become a team. Not necessarily a sexual team — though Lou pitches for that piece of pie as well. But definitely the balls-out team that can push Nina‘s floundering station out of Ratings Hell  and into minor league Fox News territory.

Lou has his own team too — consisting of himself at the wheel and his underpaid assistant and heavily exploited ex-homeless wingman, Rick (Riz Ahmed, very good) barking out the directions to the disaster. Soon enough they stumble on what every movie like this lusts for: The Big Story. Here, it’s a mass murder in a posh Beverly Hills-style house — which Lou gets about as up close and personal as you can possibly get without actually committing the murders yourself, copping footage that’s a tabloid-level news whore’s wet, wet dream.

III. Couldn’t Possibly Happen

That’s where Nightcrawler’s story speeds up and heads for pay-dirt, but also where it begins to get a little ridiculous — and, like Lou, goes too far. At the crime scene, Lou takes shots he shouldn’t be taking and  withholds evidence and lies to the cops and slants the story in ways that would get him fired if he wasn’t working with people who have as much (or less) scruples than he does — and should get him fired or investigated anyway, but doesn’t. I’m not saying TV news is a kosher operation, But the movie doesn’t do a good job of explaining why Lou gets away with this, or why he thinks he can. After going along on the show’s program for quite a while, I have to say I didn’t much believe much of what happens in Nightcrawler from the debut of the Big Story on. But I forgave it, at least part of the way, because the show was so entertaining and the actors were so good. God knows most of the movies we see, especially the contemporary action/crime shows, don’t make much sense either. As for Lou: him you can forgive for  being a pungently realized movie character taking us on a wild ride.

Modern TV news — and I’ve watched more of it than I should — certainly has its sleazy side, and Nightcrawler gets points for trying to uncover some of it. But Gilroy Dan seems to want to be Reginald Rose or Paddy Chayefsky or maybe (as many critics have opined), the Scorsese of Taxi Driver, and he’s not quite there. (For one thing, his script could use more characters and background.) Nightcrawler has stuff to commend. It looks good (Elswit deserves another kudo), sounds good (ditto Gilroy), plays good (ditto the actors, especially Gyllenhaal and Ahmed) and takes us somewhere interesting, even if some of us have been there before, or think we have.

It also demonstrates something that you wouldn’t think needed much proving, but apparently does, again: In creating a milieu like this — sharp and brutal and poisonous and, at least part of the way,  true to life — you’re better off using good dialogue read by good actors than staging two or three pretty good, very expensive  car-chases or gun battles, and hoping that enough critics, or enough of the audience, have crushes on the leads. (By the way, the big car-chase here, staged by stunt coordinator/second unit director Mike Smith, isn’t bad.)

Overall, Nightcrawler is good in the same way The Drop was good or that The Wolf of Wall Street was a good deal better than good. It makes us feel, at least part of the time, that we’re in a real place, with at least half-way real people doing at least half-way real things. And the fact that those half-way real things are so destructive and hard-hearted and  brutal and insanely off the charts — and that they’re somewhat plausibly connected to at least some of the TV news trash some of us see every night — is what gives you the neo-noir shivers. Much more, at least, than the usual contemporary action movie whose ploy is having some high priced movie star (Liam or Keanu or Denzel or what have you ) walk down a street or into a room or onto a train or a warehouse with ten to twenty gunmen blazing away or flexing their muscles and attitude, and killing them all.

The conventional crime/action movie of today, like, say, John Wick, shows us something that couldn’t possibly  happen, written by someone who has probably been nowhere near anything remotely similar, and whose imagination has probably been debauched by too many other movies that couldn’t possibly happen either. (I’m not saying, mind you, that there aren’t a lot of good or better than good movies that couldn’t happen or don‘t make sense.) Nightcrawler shows us something that probably couldn’t possibly happen either, but that maybe almost could. That “maybe almost could” is the big catch. What earned Nightcrawler all those good reviews, mine now included, is the unsettling fact that there’s a lot of people who may recognize themselves, or at least part of themselves, in Lou Bloom and his dirty odyssey and his brutality and his lack of scruple: as a modern guy just trying to get along in this rotten modern world — a viper with a camera who wants to come in from the cold, and who would sell his rattle and his poisonous front teeth for a key. It’s a world for snakes and whores and all kind of things that couldn‘t possibly happen (we think) .  And I don’t exempt myself.

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One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: Nightcrawler”

  1. Daniella Isaacs says:

    What made me really get excited about the movie is something simple: It seemed original. It may be thematically similar to A FACE IN THE CROWD and ACE IN THE HOLE and structurally and tonally it may resemble TAXI DRIVER, but although it’s neo-noir and all, it’s one of the few movies that satisfies in a genre-centered way without seeming like an homage to, ripoff, of or borderline remake of any other movie. It’s well done, it’s original, and it’s about something. It’s kind of shocking how rarely we see that.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon