6 November 2014

Nightcrawler shows us the dark side of ambition

Nightcrawler opens with a series of still, serene shots of the best side of Los Angeles, shots of Ferris Wheels and beaches and brightly lit streets, before cutting to our main character, Lou Bloom, as he cuts down a metal fence for scrap. It's a grim, dirty train yard we find ourselves in, a stark contrast to the colourful and safe view of LA we saw a second ago. A graffiti covered train rumbles past in the background, and a rough looking security guard confronts Lou about being in a restricted area. Lou spots that the security guard is wearing a nice looking watch, and under the guise of handing the security guard some ID, attacks him. Lou is wearing that watch for the rest of the film, a reminder that if Lou wants something, he will get it.

Nightcrawler follows Lou as he attempts to become the most successful nightcrawler in LA. A nightcrawler is someone who races to accidents or crime scenes and films as much as they can, selling the footage to news stations, who pay better the more graphic the footage is. After making his first sale, Lou realises he needs better equipment and more manpower, hiring the down on his luck Rick as an intern, paying just $30 a night.

Lou is one of the most interesting and captivating characters that I've seen on screen this year, played perfectly by Jake Gyllenhaal, who builds upon his old "disturbed teen" persona he developed earlier on in his career to play a character that is completely unique. Lou is the textbook definition of a sociopath - manipulative, uncaring, intelligent and ambitious, while also having a complete lack of conscience and moral code. He gives of an other worldly charisma, at once charming you while also alerting you to the fact that he is a dangerous man - not physically, but certainly someone that you do not want to have to interact with. The rules simply to do not apply to Lou.

At the start of the film, Lou seems socially inept, talking with a level of directness that is uncomfortable and not seen in social settings, but it works to his advantage - he tells people his exact intentions, and expects them to comply if he is in a greater position of power than them. And if he isn't in a position of power, then he makes sure that he will be soon, constantly working his ass off to make sure that he has some leverage, some form of bargaining power. His directness can come off as inhuman, and people seem to think that he doesn't understand who people work, but in his own words, its not that he doesn't understand people, its that he doesn't like them, and this dislike for others means that he simply doesn't worry or care about them beyond what he can get out of them. To Lou, people are secondary to his ambitions, kept close if they are useful and discarded when they are not.

Both Rick, Lou's intern, and Nina, the news stations morning news director, are victims of Lou's manipulation, only realising that they are completely powerless far too late to stop Lou from doing what he wants to do, whether that be making increasingly extravagant demands from both the news station and Nina herself or coercing Rick into putting himself in harms way for a better shot of a crime. Both Riz Ahmed and Rene Russo give great performances as Rick and Nina respectively, with Rene Russo in particular really giving a believable transition from being in a position of power over Lou to being controlled by Lou as the film progresses.

A lot of people have been saying that Nightcrawler is a satire of modern news broadcasts, but it isn't. Satire is when an aspect of something is over exaggerated in order to point out the ridiculousness of the thing in question, and that simply doesn't happen here - the news channel that Lou sells to is certainly portrayed as ethically questionable, but exaggeration is not needed to get that point across. Throughout, Nina is pushing Lou for footage of urban crimes in suburban areas, with emphasis on white victims, which is being used to keep up the pretence of a crime wave while crime rates are falling. Later, we see Nina pressing the news anchors to keep talking about just how scary the footage they are showing is and how the criminals are still at large in order to create a climate of fear which brings in more viewers, but this isn't Nightcrawler over exaggerating the way that the news manipulates public opinion - it feels like an accurate representation of how the news manipulates public opinion, which is in itself rather worrying. This isn't satire, it's an honest commentary on the way that we create and consume news items.

Nightcrawler remains as unpredictable as it's main character throughout, never straying too far into the unbelievable or extreme, instead choosing to take the story to it's natural conclusion. There are obvious paths that the film could have taken that would have taken Lou further than he needed to go, but Nightcrawler is smarter than that, and instead of going bigger, gets more personal and intimate, leading into a thrilling finale that shows us that Lou is just as dangerous, if not more so, than we thought.

Nightcrawler ends up being one of the most interesting films released this year, the fantastic performances and strong direction combined with the excellent cinematography giving a really great view of the world that Lou inhabits. Although I'd struggle to recommend this film to casual movie goers (it's one of the more unique films I've ever seen, and I already know that it isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea), anyone with more than a passing interest in movies is going to want to watch it. It's not perfect - the running time seems excessive and parts of the ending feel rushed - but it's a well made film that isn't afraid to be different, and that's always good to see.

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