Wednesday, November 5, 2014

If It Bleeds, It Leads: Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, in Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler

In Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, Nightcrawler, there’s a moment in which Lou Bloom (an emaciated, wide-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal) brushes aside a strand of greasy hair and spouts one of his practiced canned phrases: “I like to say, if you’re seeing me, you’re having the worst day of your life.” His grin is skeletal. He isn’t joking, and it’s not just because he sells footage of grisly crime scenes to low-rent Los Angeles news stations, and if you’re seeing him, you’re probably the victim of an armed robbery or a head-on collision. It’s because of the lengths to which he is willing to go in order to acquire that footage.

Bloom is a perfect sociopath. He absorbs wealths of information online and regurgitates it verbatim in his characteristic rapid-fire manner, without feeling the impact of the words but knowing that they will affect those with whom he’s speaking. His ruthless ambition is a manifestation of that lack of empathy, and woe is he (or she) who compromises Bloom’s chances at success. He operates with cold precision, pushing his camera lens into tableaux of death and pain with unflinching calm. His babbled jargon disguises a fanatical need to exert control over his own life and the lives of those he can use to further his goals – like his hapless assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed), whose nervous stammering elicited laughter from the audience I was with, but filled me with unease and sympathetic fear. I think the rest of the people in the screening simply dealt with that pervasive sense of discomfort – the wrongness of the things Bloom does – by resorting to the natural defense mechanism of laughter, while I couldn’t crack a smile if I had tried. 

Nightcrawler can be an ambiguous experience, which might more charitably be called “thought-provoking.” The nature of the main character himself is clear, but how the audience is supposed to react to him is not – are we meant to sympathize with Bloom? Empathy is out of the question, as Bloom himself doesn’t seem to feel anything beyond an overabundance of personal drive. But are we supposed to identify with him as a troubled individual, just trying to make it in a vast, unfeeling city? 

Gilroy provides us with a potential clue in the symbolic motif of a Rolex watch, first acquired when Bloom wrests it from the wrist of a security guard after assaulting him. His rise from petty theft into a larger and more lucrative career might by represented in Bloom’s eventual abandonment of the watch, a symbolic gesture showing that he has lifted himself above such desperate needs. But Bloom wears the watch proudly for the entire film – never giving up the part of himself that is willing to do anything, anything, to achieve his goals.

The soundtrack might have provided some clarity, but Gilroy, working with composer James Newton Howard, throws us for a loop there too. Bloom is dissatisfied with the shot composition of a car crash, and so he takes it upon himself to “improve” the scene for the camera. In any other film this sequence would be scored with dark pulses, suggesting the reprehensible nature of what our main character is doing. But in Nightcrawler it’s accompanied by soft melodic strains, striking major chords that shimmer and uplift. It feels completely at odds with what we’re seeing. Maybe it’s just another way the film plays with the theme of trust – like those who gobble up Bloom’s gory news footage along with their breakfast, we too often let these things wash over us without questioning them.

Part of the reason I couldn’t bring myself to laugh along with the audience was that Nightcrawler reminded me too powerfully of Taxi Driver, and while I’m not sure it will stand the test of time as well as that Scorsese classic has, it’s certainly just as humourless an experience. There’s nothing funny to me about disturbed young men, trapped in their own minds and lost in a city that’s as barren to them as a desert, forced by circumstance or their own misguided judgment into committing acts of evil and suffering. But, especially in the hands of promising directors like Gilroy and talented and committed actors like Gyllenhaal, they make for darkly compelling cinema.

 Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

1 comment:

  1. This film was quite a visceral experience, and Cummings is brilliant in his take on it!