Most works of fiction revolve around a central protagonist we follow through the story. Often referred to as the hero, we are meant to relate to this character and root for their victory. Perhaps the character is gruff, dishonest, distasteful, but still has some noble goal at heart. There we’d have an anti-hero. And then we have Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler who is simply an irredeemable scumbag of a human being.
Writer/director Dan Gilroy has managed to create a movie that is gripping despite the central character being utterly unlikable from the opening scene. In the first moment we are introduced to Lou Bloom as he commits a crime that turns violent. His casual nature immediately afterward is the first sign that we have a true sociopath on our hands. Bloom is decently charismatic, energetic, driven, and ridiculously confident even when caught in a lie. If he isn’t educated in a subject he needs to know about he will quickly research it and be able to convince at least an average person that he is an expert. He does all of this with total disregard to laws and people that may be in his way. These traits serve him well as he enters the field of “nightcrawling,” shooting grisly crimes and car crashes to sell to local news stations.
Gyllenhaal gives an incredible performance as someone who is absolutely checked out from the reality that everyone else lives in. He must have read a self help book on career advancement as he readily spouts patronizing jargon about using self motivation and ambition to achieve upward mobility on the corporate ladder in a diverse and competitive job market. That character is just a veneer though, as if Bloom decided one day that this was the kind of person he wanted to be to better fit in with the world. He is an empty shell being driven only by the thought of “advancement” and thinks he can learn how to be more human from a book. In one scene Bloom begins to discover nightcrawling and sees it as an exciting new venture for himself. He takes in everything he can with wide unblinking eyes and moves his head in sharp quick movements that is almost lizard like. To borrow a phrase from a tv show about a certain charismatic cannibal, in that moment his true self was showing through his “person suit.”
There are other icky characters as well. A fellow nightcrawler inducts Bloom into the business and sees all the hurt and destruction simply as money making opportunities. The local news director Bloom sells his footage to has no qualms pushing the boundaries of propriety and decency by airing the grisliest footage she can in the name of ratings. But even these characters are eventually shocked by the depths to which Bloom will sink. Innocent people are caught up in these people’s misdeeds and are hurt, even killed. It’s like the proverbial train wreck you can’t look away from as everything escalates and builds while you wait, hope, beg for things to come crashing down and Bloom to get what he deserves.
It’s strange to say that I really enjoyed watching this movie when there is nothing positive in its message or content. As a film it has strong, engaging performances and ratchets up the tension expertly. There is a clear indictment of news as shock entertainment, but where this movie grabbed me was being amazed at just how deplorable Bloom could be. He quickly became a character I loved to hate.
I think Gyllenhaal has shown that it takes a good man to play a bad guy.
Other movies I watched this week (potential minor spoilers):
Xanadu – A musical from 1980 in which Olivia Newton-John inspires some pretty boy painter and Gene Kelly to open up a roller disco nightclub. That’s a thing that happened. I heard this movie had a rep for being BAD, but it was…fine? I mean, nothing was memorable but I’ve seen frivolous musicals less enjoyable. I bet this movie is actually more enjoyable now as a kitschy time capsule than it was when it was released.
The Lazarus Effect – In typical Blumhouse Productions fashion this is a fairly average horror movie that banks on being profitable by having a low budget. That said Blumhouse usually spends what budget they do have well enough. Olivia Wilde stands out from the movie around her by feeling like a real person early on and being genuinely menacing later once stuff gets weird. Neither particularly good or bad, this flick is worth a random watch if you’re a fan of the genre.
Over the Top – From the opening song you’ll know you are squarely in the 80’s. Sylvester Stallone must win the love of his estranged son and achieve his dream of owning his own truck driving business. He’ll try to do this through…professional arm wrestling! He looks a tad ridiculous when he turns his hat backwards and puts on his game face. And there is so much grunting and flexing during the matches that I was worried my female dog and cat might spontaneously become boys as a result of the hilarious amount of gratuitous testosterone being bandied about. This movie does uphold a tradition I miss though: an end credits song that uses the title of the film as its chorus.
Circle – You know the part of Survivor when the contestants vote someone off the island? This movie is 90 minutes of that. Only instead of contestants they’re hostages kidnapped by aliens and and instead of getting banished from the island you get dead. The whole setup is just an excuse to touch on hot button issues like race, sexual orientation, religion, and other topics to try decide who lives and who dies. It never does this in any interesting ways and nearly all the “characters” are one note and paper thin. Shout out to Julie Benz from Buffy and Angel. I’m sorry you had to be here.
Trading Places – Ah, a time long ago when seeing Eddie Murphy in a movie was considered a good thing. This is a genuinely funny film with enough heart and commentary to raise it above a simple comedy. Watching it now I was surprised at the kinds of things that ended up in this generally light hearted film; jokes about race that would likely be in poor taste today, casual nudity, and an attempted suicide. Today most rated R comedies are very specifically trying to be outrageous while this rated R comedy from 1983 seems to treat these elements as par for the course. An interesting example of changing times and values.