Editor’s note: Our “Double Exposure” reviews pit two or more critics against one another on the same film to hash out their differences in opinion. Agree with what we have to say or want to offer your own take? Leave it in the comments below.
8.5 out of 10
6.5 out of 10
7.0 out of 10
Zack Miller: “Nightcrawler” opens on an empty billboard, illuminated by the audible hum of flourescent lights that herald the impending arrival of a performance from Jake Gyllenhaal that is just that: flourescent. A standard bulb flickers at 120 cycles per second, five times faster than the frame rate that captures Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom. This is fitting, considering that the sharp-edged freneticism he brings to the role seems to positively vibrate off the screen. Lou is an unemployed man, scrounging to make a living in the abandoned murk of nocturnal Los Angeles. Much like the billboard, he is introduced as a tabula rasa, ready to transform into whatever configuration will make a quick buck in a slumping economy.
Gyllenhaal’s acting has been the big story with this film so far, and it’s not hard to see why – it is the type of role that can draw the audience in, turn against them, make them laugh or recoil in equal measure. He fully commits to the character mentally and physically, and to make a supercut of every time Bloom blinks would be to make the world’s shortest supercut. What did you guys think of his performance, and how did it jive with your perception of “Nightcrawler” as a whole?
Josef Rodriguez: “Nightcrawler” is a film where I’ve had a lot of trouble articulating my thoughts about it in a way that doesn’t constantly contradict itself. On the one hand, it’s one of the fastest two hours you’ll spend in a movie theater all year, Gyllenhaal’s performance is top notch, Dan Gilroy’s screenplay features some of the year’s best dialogue, and Robert Elswit can now add yet another iconic depiction of LA to his already impeccable filmography.
On the other hand, “Nightcrawler” doesn’t always feel like much of a movie. I understand that, to accurately portray Lou’s sociopathy, Gilroy only allowed him to interact with characters on a surface level. As a result, there really is no character development in this film beyond what Lou says or discovers. As for Lou himself, I think Gilroy does a good job at keeping things playfully ambiguous, and I would have been more upset had he unnecessarily justified or explained Lou’s odd behavioral patterns. Instead, the audience is just left to believe that this is the type of person Lou is and we have to accept that. Lou perfectly embodies the emotionless, technologically inclined culture that this country is producing, and Gilroy portrays this in a way that’s not overcooked or obvious. Unfortunately, I saw some of my colleagues in Lou and, scarily enough, I saw some of myself, as well, and the lengths to which he was willing to go for success. In that sense, Gilroy seems to also be making a comment on the current job market, and how young professionals are, because of the desensitized world they live in, are able and willing enthusiastically assume any task handed to them.
Zack: I’m glad that you brought up the shallow interactions and ambiguity of Lou’s character, because I think that those are so key to understanding (and for me, enjoying) the role. Lou isn’t a character that you would want to relate to or understand. Hell, Lou is barely a character – he’s the devil on your shoulder, holding up a mirror to the world as he misinterprets the pages of every self-help book he so readily quotes. The supposed lack of arc, therefore, didn’t bother me. In fact, I found the film just as engaging for the fact that Lou is consistent with his amoral go-getter attitude. Instead of a character arc, the result is an audience arc: tension mounts as he wins you over with his wiles and slick banter, until you have to deal with the fact that, yes, maybe you do see a bit of yourself in him and, yes, that’s terrible. That he is too calculated to truly function as a proxy for the viewer is all part of the trick. There is simply no dissonance in relating to someone who risks being relatable.
Josef: I would disagree that he was intended to be seen as wholly evil. A lot of his behavior is extremely questionable, reprehensible even, but I don’t think Gilroy intended him to be a villain. Instead, I saw him as more of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, finagling his way into a professional setting where he knew he could thrive. It’s important to remember that Lou’s goal, first and foremost, is to run a successful business, and everything he does afterwards is secondary. I find it a little irksome how every drama now needs to be about some twisted version of the American Dream, but that’s exactly what Lou is chasing, and he accurately embodies the Machiavellian spirit of American late capitalism. Like Jordan Belfort in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” I couldn’t help but feel some kind of demented admiration for Lou; he knew what he wanted and he got it.
Taylor Sinople: Gyllenhaal’s character is a true amalgamation of the dark undercurrents of the American dream. But while his performance is, as you say, the big story with this film, it’s an element that didn’t entirely work for me. It’s as if the filmmakers are so focused on Lou functioning as a human surrogate to their ideals that he appears more as a device than a human being. Gyllenhaal is doing a lot of acting on screen, but I never saw a character rise up from his many twitches and deliberate line deliveries. The impact of it all was considerably lessened, then, by my displeasure with the central performance. While Lou is introduced as a blank slate, he quickly evolves into a character too precise to offer the every-day sense of ambiguity he needs to in order to scare us into believing that the actions he takes later in the film are a truly possible evolution of our current economic desperations and cultural insensitivities. When I had a good handle of where the character was going, I was so ready for Lou to become iconic as a pop culture archetype in the way Travis Bickle has, but Gyllenhaal’s performance and, most importantly, the screenplay, never took me there. The persistent quirkiness and monologuing only brought me out of the film every time – this guy is just not as drawing, interesting, or fascinating as the movie thinks he is.
Josef: As I said before, Robert Elswit is reaching legendary status at this point, and there are very few cinematographers who can shoot LA quite like him. It’s hard to look at his work – “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” and “Michael Clayton,” among others – and not think he’s the man for the job. “Nightcrawler” is, if nothing else, one of the most visually exciting films of the year. It’s obvious that Elswit is having a little more fun with this film than usual, and his unpolished, improvisational approach to the film’s aesthetic is exciting and refreshing. Not every shot is perfect or gorgeously composed or “Oscar-worthy,” but they all reflect the mood that Gilroy is trying to maintain, and, contextually, it works out wonderfully. Unfortunately, I do think that Elswit’s work is undermined by James Newton Howard’s inconsistent score, and those two elements of the film never coalesce the way they should. I can appreciate neon-throwback as much as the next guy, but Howard’s work on the score doesn’t even compare to Elswit’s cinematography, and it’s a noticeable weak point in the film’s more auditory sequences.
Zack: The score wore on me more and more as the film progressed. In the first few scenes, where it’s all reverb-y single guitar notes and drones, I expected something more along the lines of a minimalist Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross collaboration. As you mentioned, it quickly became rather kitschy, incorporating chimes, clarinets, and tribal drums in ways that never feel of a piece with the rest of what’s happening. Elswit, though, is operating at peak capacity and clearly having fun doing it. His Los Angeles is an electric ghost town, perpetually empty but always lit up, and he plays around with a lot of great on-screen sources, particularly the harsh camcorder spotlights. One of my favourite shots comes in Lou’s apartment when he has two lamps shining, the television turned on, and the window open, but the apartment is still almost pitch dark: no amount of light is going to penetrate his cave.
Taylor: The thing that grabs me most about “Nightcrawler” is the way that it interacts with the audience and demands active viewing. I try to go into films blind as often as possible, and with this one I think it really paid off. Emotionally, I must have went through more or less exactly what writer-director Dan Gilroy and team had in mind. The two pieces of information I did have – that we had rated it as one of the best films our team had seen at the Atlantic Film Fest this year, and that its throw-back promotional materials were reminiscent of 2011’s “Drive” – put me in an intense state of discovery as to what the film is really up to.
And what it’s up to is mostly fantastic. Those nods to 80’s neon aesthetics, neo-noir sensibilities, and to “Drive” in particular had me waiting for the massive synth score that never comes. By the time you realize that you’ve been duped it’s too late to avoid the unceremonious execution of the American obsession with morbidity. Gilroy is just daring us to excuse, find entertainment in, and ultimately glorify the violence in “Nightcrawler” as we have the over-the-top brutality in “Drive.” “Nightcrawler” plumbs the depths of morality and makes a sickening case for the extent to which human ethics can be bent in exchange for monetary compensation. It also thoroughly indicts tabloid journalism and main-stream news media – the stuff that we allow to influence our lives and rule our fears. But beyond that it also looks at the type of person that uses everything and everyone available to succeed. Through a satirical lens and with a whole lot of nasty people and scenarios thrown in, “Nightcrawler” does expose the unethical, disturbing behavior that we encourage and celebrate in the workplace. Gilroy nearly gets lost, though, in his commitment to giving us a fulfilling stealth-action caper in the midst of all this social commentary.
Josef: Gilroy, brother of Tony, who has scripted some of the decade’s best thrillers, has quite a bit to live up to. For the most part, I think he’s up to task and, more importantly, he takes it upon himself to establish an identity and style that isn’t identical to his brother’s. With that being said, “Nightcrawler” often feels unfinished, operating more as a two-hour pilot for an HBO series, not a movie. When Gilroy rolls the credits, not only is the film not done, it leaves us with more than a few hanging plot threads. I understand the desire to keep a film at a reasonable length, but the way Gilroy just abruptly ends the film, and the horribly contrived 10 minutes that precedes that ending, is just lazy filmmaking.
What did you guys think of the ending? Did you feel that it was worthy of the rest of the film or did you think that Gilroy just didn’t know where he wanted to leave things off?
Zack: I was completely satisfied with the ending. I didn’t feel that anything was left unresolved – at least, nothing essential to what the film wanted to accomplish. For Lou to succeed and grow his business is in step with the rest of the movie, putting the viewer on edge because it plays as a triumphant, happy ending despite the fact that we should ostensibly feel disgusted by it. I’d actually posit the the opposite of Gilroy not knowing what he wanted and say that he was perhaps too keenly self-aware at times, since the satirical aspects of the screenplay often coagulate in very direct ways. To Gilroy’s credit, though, it’s never as heavy-handed as, say, “Birdman” in its finger-pointing, and is able to stay afloat under its own cynicism.
Josef: I just felt that the ending was abrupt, and deviated from some of the themes introduced throughout the film. It almost seemed like Gilroy had made Lou too likable, and had to give the audience a reason to root against him at the end of the film. It just seemed like an odd choice on his part, and a little bit uncalculating considering the circumstance. I experienced an uncontrollable eye-roll in the film’s climactic moments. Like I said, it just felt lazy.
I would, however, like to point out the car chase scene in the third act, which ended up being one of my favorite scenes in the film. I find more and more that dramatic directors have a better grasp on car chase scenes than most action filmmakers, and often stage them in ways that focus more on the aesthetics of the event – the engine, the screeching of the tires, the gliding headlights – instead of trying to create a visceral experience that puts the audience in the backseat. The artistic approach is ultimately the more successful one, and the chase sequence in “Nightcrawler” only proves my point. It’s everything a car chase scene should be, and rivals the ones we’ve seen recently in films like “Jack Reacher” and “Drive.”
Think Zack, Josef, and Taylor made some good points? Have a completely different opinion on “Nightcrawler”? Join the discussion below.Continue Reading Issue #27
October 31, 2014
1 hr. 57 min.
Crime, Drama, Thriller
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed