Thursday, November 20, 2014


“Bourne Legacy” screenwriter Dan Gilroy exposes the skullduggery behind tabloid TV journalism in “Nightcrawler” (*** OUT OF ****), a gritty, engrossing, but seldom surprising satire with savvy actor Jake Gyllenhaal cast as an unsavory stringer with a camcorder.  Hollywood has been producing exposés about the depths that shady journalists will plumb to land the big scoop.   Some of the best include “Five Star Final” (1931), the venerable “Citizen Kane” (1941), and “Ace in the Hole” (1951).   If you know anything about the history of yellow journalism, few things can top what one sleazy news reporter orchestrated during the execution of Ruth Snyder at Sing Sing Prison back in 1928.  Convicted of murdering her husband, Snyder was sentenced to die in the electric chair.   The New York Daily News hired amateur photographer Tom Howard to cover the execution, and Howard snapped a photo of Snyder quivering in the electric chair as 700 volts sizzled through her body.  Naturally, the infamous photo appeared a little fuzzy, but the Daily News ran the notorious picture on its front page.   Sales of the newspaper skyrocketed, and the Daily News ran the same electrifying photo again on its front page the following day.   Most of what occurs in “Nightcrawler” is tame compared with the stunt that the Daily News reporter pulled.   Indeed, little of it is as exciting as the real-life incidents that the movie’s technical advisors have encountered on a regular basis.   Nevertheless, this polished, fast-paced, pulp thriller about what an ambitious but unscrupulous journalist does to deliver the goods is often more amusing than audacious.   A gaunt-looking Gyllenhaal manages to be both charismatic and creepy as the anti-heroic protagonist, and he lets nothing interfere with his ignoble aspirations.  Rene Russo makes the most of her role as an over-the-hill Los Angeles television news director, while Bill Paxton scores in a peripheral role as a veteran nightcrawler who shows Gyllenhaal the ropes.  Although he doesn’t break new ground with “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy proves with his directorial debut that he can capably stage not only suspenseful shootouts and careening car chases, but also conjure up flawed but hypnotic characters in a morally skewered universe.
Initially, when we encounter Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal of “End of Watch”) for the first time, he is a petty thief who will pinch anything.   He steals copper, cyclone fencing, wristwatches, and even tournament racing bikes.  Eventually, he discovers that money can made as a freelance crime videographer lensing scenes of blood-splattered murder and mayhem.  Since he resides in Los Angeles, where people die violently every day, Bloom decides to hock a trophy bike for a camcorder and a scanner.   No sooner does he try his hand at his new profession than he rubs shoulders with a professional stringer.   Joe Loder (the incomparable Bill Paxton of “Aliens”) cruises around in a souped-up minivan equipped with high-tech cameras and a sidekick to shoot those big scenes.   Loder has a computer editing console on-board so he can upload video to the highest bidder at the various competing TV stations around Los Angeles.   Loder admires Bloom’s determination and drive.  Bloom scoots around in crappy 1985 Tercel and wields a low-tech camcorder.  He sneaks inside a house where a homicide has taken place and reorganizes the crime scene so it appears more photogenic and then sells it to a TV station.   Later, the enterprising Bloom hires a homeless man, Rick (Riz Ahmed of “Centurion”), to serve as his navigator.   Whenever Bloom races off to a potential crime scene, Rick struggles to route his impatient employer along the fastest streets to the crime scene.   Bloom pays him $30 a day, but Rick is still pretty clueless about being a stringer.  Meanwhile, the unscrupulous but captivating Bloom has taken a shine to a dame, Nina Romina (Rene Russo of “Lethal Weapon 3”), who works at the lowest rated Los Angeles TV station.  "I want something people can't turn away from," she tells Bloom.   “If it bleeds, it leads,” she explains.  She avoids his amorous advances, but she praises his video.   At one point, to acquire better video of a corpse after a car crash, Bloom drags the body into the light.   At the station, Nina observes that Bloom has blood on his hands.   Indeed, Gilroy uses Romina to make a sarcastic comment about Bloom’s cynical nature, but Bloom has no qualms.  Ultimately, Bloom and Rick get so good at their game they beat the LAPD to a crime scene, and Bloom prowls the premises where three corpses lay sprawled in puddles of blood and photographs them.  He even shoots footage of the perpetrators fleeing.   Bloom orchestrates events so he can make big bucks off the crime as well as the eventual capture of the killers.
If you have read the Internet interview with Austin Raishbrook who served as the technical advisor for “Nightcrawler,” you have to wonder why Gilroy didn’t replicate more of Raishbrook’s exploits.  Some of the sights Raishbrook and his two brothers have seen would make you cringe.  When the Raishbrook brothers rush out to shoot video, they suit up in bulletproof vests and prepare for the worst.   Not only have they have been shot at, but also thugs have smashed their equipment.  Some of the chaos they have seen sounds surreal compared to the formulaic genre shenanigans Gilroy puts his characters through in this vivid R-rated urban epic.   Despite its shortage of surprises, “Nightcrawler” features some incredibly amoral characters and top-notch performances.  Bloom doesn’t care what it takes to obtain footage, even if it means either sacrificing an employee or eliminating the competition.  In this respect, “Nightcrawler” differs from most movies where the villains get their just comeuppance.   Louis Bloom is most certainly not a hero.   He qualifies as a vile, low-life, bottom-feeder, but “Nightcrawler” doesn’t punish him for his wicked ways.   Instead, he comes up smelling like roses no matter what he does and that is the singular thing that distinguishes the above-average “Nightcrawler” from most mainstream, standard-issue, Hollywood film releases.

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