With the new year approaching, we celebrate our films of 2014. First up, it’s Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler.
If Nightcrawler feels like an instant cult-classic, that’s because it is. Not interested in the transitory beauty of a Boyhood or the narrative virtuosity of a Grand Budapest Hotel, Dan Gilroy’s film is instead 70s cinema for the modern age: a film that slits open the seedy underbelly of a New York urban jungle picture and collects up the innards before sending them off to a modern day Los Angeles, where the viscera have been given a little millennial gloss so that the director can paint across the sprawl with a new, nightmarish flourish.
By its nature, the film is a media satire – perhaps the best one since Network – but it’s also a takedown of American male mythology
On a base level, Nightcrawler is about a man who finds something he’s good at and makes his way to the top through sheer relentless obsession and hard work. This reading reduces the film and makes it sound like any number of films about the great American Dream, though, and Nightcrawler is anything but. It is in fact a bullet through the heart of it; a snapshot of the dream at its worst. On another base level, Nightcralwer is about the evils of sensationalist journalism and news corporations, about the dangers of social media and surveillance in this ever-evolving culture of cameras and action. (Gilroy’s film, his first as a director, strangles us with the continual news banner that runs across the station he depicts on screen, and no amount of iridescence from the colours on show can hide the fact that he wants us to choke on the blackness that descends upon us when we let ourselves become brainwashed by the media.)
But to commit Nightcrawler to the canon of ‘media satire picture’ is to do it a disservice. By its nature, the film is a media satire – perhaps the best one since Network – but it is also a takedown of American male mythology, a slicing open of the mythos that surrounds the have-a-go hero of American history, and a deft black comedy that lends some genuine surrealist notions to the very accurate world it depicts. This is the type of film that I hope wins no Oscars, and won’t; the type of film that Criterion will release; the type of film that in years to come might be recognised as a masterpiece.
Of course, all of this would be impossible to achieve if the core components of a great film were not in place before the context. But everything from the direction to the editing to the screenplay to the performances is spot on. There isn’t an element that doesn’t click and, in Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou, Nightcrawler has its perfect centrepiece. Gyllenhaal goes all out, turning Lou into one of cinema’s all-time-great sociopaths. Many have cited Travis Bickle as a comparison, but Lou is actually closer to another De Niro creation, in another Scorsese film: The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou with a De Niro-like intensity. Notice how he never blinks when talking to another character
Like Pupkin, Lou buys into his own ability, convinced that he is a pioneer and thus needs rewarding. Like Pupkin, Lou speaks in a jutting, mile-a-minute manner, as if his brain can’t quite control his mouth. Lou is naturally more intelligent and conniving, but both manipulate those around them to unnerving affect. That Lou is more successful eventually (there is great debate to be had about Pupkin’s fate at the end of Comedy) suggests that the broadcasting world has only grown sicker. Pupkin was seen as a bit of a joke back then, but now he’d probably be a YouTube hit.
Gyllenhaal plays Lou with a De Niro-like intensity, using some of his own techniques to give Lou a disquieting edge – notice how he never blinks when talking to another character. It is a lifetime best turn from a performer too often overlooked, and everything about it screams iconic, from Lou’s choice pair of sunglasses to the way he shuts down a rival (Bill Paxton) with the simplest of kiss-offs. His performance only grows as we see Lou rise to the top, from punk to prophet, guttersnipe to God. (Guttersnipe to God could almost be the title of a self-help book; one of the most deranged aspects of modern Americana is this guru-culture, this infomercial style of talking, so credit Gilroy and Nightcrawler for shining a light on that, too.)
Then there’s Robert Elswit’s cinematography, which paints LA in a blur of traffic-light mist, all crossroads and intersections; Gilroy’s script, which barely wastes a line; and the great supporting turns from Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed and Bill Paxton. I could go on. But if there’s one last thing to say about Nightcrawler, about what it teaches us, I think it’s this: don’t be fooled. Don’t be fooled by the American Dream. Don’t be fooled by new-capitalism.
If there’s one thing to say about Nightcrawler, about what it teaches us, it’s this: don’t be fooled
Don’t be fooled by the news and TV, which wants us all to know that tomorrow we may die. Don’t be fooled. By men in suits; by smooth-talking sages; by people who will pretend they like you just to fuck you. Don’t. Be. Fooled. By fame, by fashion, by fortune. Don’t be fooled. Don’t be fooled into ‘making it’ like that’s the sole reason you were put on this planet. Don’t be fooled by a lifetime of glittering externality, by an existence served to serve.
Don’t be fooled: by your friends, by your family, by your work or your neighbours or the man stood next to you at the lights. Don’t be fooled into thinking that if you’re honest and good and hardworking you will be rewarded. It’s a sham, all of it. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the things you are shown don’t have evil in or behind them because they probably do. This is the world Nightcrawler depicts. It is beautiful; it is disgusting; it is life. It is the film of the year.
All images: Open Road Films