Tag Archives: There Will Be Blood

The Movie That Reminds Me of the Time I Betrayed Who I Am — “Nightcrawler”

Nightcrawler lead

by Gabriel Valdez

There’s nothing wrong with this review. It describes the film, it praises what works, it delves into its meaning, and it wraps up with a larger message about how Nightcrawler can inform a viewer’s perspective.

But…to be completely honest, I think it lacks a certain artistry I seek to incorporate in my reviews. Here’s the problem with Nightcrawler for me – it hits way too close to home. I’m deeply proud of my reviews, from turning my own experiences inside out for Gravity and Fury to waxing loquacious about why American Hustle and The Monuments Men are testaments to art itself.

If there’s a quality I feel makes me unique as a critic, however, it’s empathy – not that other critics don’t have it, but other critics might not consider it the single most crucial factor of the job. When I face a truly great film about sociopathy, it can get under my skin. I have a habit of briefly adopting little nuances from main characters, of walking out of the theater like a film’s protagonist would walk out, of absorbing a character’s perspective, because it’s one of the biggest ways to truly empathize with a film.

Films about sociopathy I hold at arm’s length as a defense. Nightcrawler isn’t exactly like There Will Be Blood, an art horror centered on a sociopath. There was nothing admirable about Daniel Plainview, nothing which won you over. That’s not the case with Nightcrawler‘s Lou Bloom. As strange and devoid of moral fiber as he is, there’s something hauntingly childlike in him. You’ll want to care for him, listen to him, despite all your better judgments. It’s a testament to Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance that I hold him at such a distance from myself.

I’ve worked jobs where I’ve had to dissociate myself from my own moral core, particularly last year. It was hell, and I changed as a person while I was in that job. I was surrounded by practiced sociopaths, whose entire livelihood was based on manipulating – their customers, their employees, each other, their families, themselves. Every morning, we met and trained in a new, precise tactic of manipulation.

It doesn’t matter how good a person you are if every day you’re trained to be otherwise; I allowed myself to begin operating in increasingly morally gray areas. I’d never cross a certain line, but that line moved from one day to the next. I quickly hit a self-destructive wall of near-constant anger about it. Thankfully, you become pretty bad at manipulating people when you’re angry all the time. The job dried up; I left. And yet it showed me a part of myself I believed I was beyond giving into. It illustrated a potential in me that I had thought I was above.

It was deeply frightening, and because Nightcrawler so specifically echoes that experience for me, I have no empathy for it. In a movie like Fury, I can understand those pressures to be a man through hate, and to teach others to be men through hate. I can empathize with the struggle of viewing the world that way because it’s a struggle that I feel I’ve faced down in myself. But Nightcrawler, that lack of empathy, that morally gray existence, that unfeeling quality of viewing others as nothing more than functions toward success or pleasure – that’s my nightmare. That’s always been what’s scared me the most.

Nightcrawler is not terrifying because of anything inside the film. It’s terrifying because of something inside me. Maybe it’s in all of us and I was just unlucky enough to glimpse it. Maybe everyone glimpses it and just doesn’t talk about it. I don’t know, I just know that I briefly, briefly recognized a capacity that’s always been there, that can always be trained, that I don’t value or like. I care so much because my adult life has been a reaction toward refuting that little bit of me, and here it was in Jake Gyllenhaal’s face, staring me down.

So my review? It gets the job done, it’s good analysis, but it lacks the one thing I try to put into everything I write and everything I do – empathy. Because I can not have empathy for this. I can never have empathy for this. I have only the sheer fright that’s driven me to be who I am instead, and that Nietzsche quote stuck in my head: “For when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

The Review

You know those rags-to-riches movies where the hero starts off from nothing and works his way to the top? He puts in more effort and longer hours than everyone else just because he wants success so badly. Now what if that hero weren’t a hero? What if we followed a sociopath instead, but he still puts in more effort and longer hours and all that dedication we’re meant to cheer ahead?

That’s the quandary we’re given in Nightcrawler. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a young man who bounces from gig to gig (mostly petty thievery) until he gets it in his head to become a freelance cameraman. He roves the L.A. streets at night to get the best shots of car crashes and shootings and sell the footage to morning news programs. He’s also a self-help addict, quoting mantras for success and even designing some choice personal ones.

His lack of moral codes help him get ahead quickly, and he develops an exclusive sales relationship with a struggling news producer, Nina (Rene Russo). He ingratiates himself with her crew and hires a homeless man to be his assistant. Why a struggling producer? Why a homeless man? Because he can manipulate and control them more easily.

Nightcrawler Gyllenhaal

It’s to Gyllenhaal’s credit that he gives us a character so good at being evil (the Iago effect, so to speak) that we can’t help but marvel at him. As writer-director Dan Gilroy has said of Lou as a character, “he understands people the way a lion understands a gazelle.” Lou maneuvers those around him into small compromises of their ethics, until he has them backed into a corner where it’s either his way or their job, or their safety, or their life.

It’s astonishing that Gilroy and Gyllenhaal can create such a misanthropic character, yet present him in a way that elicits a hint of jealousy in his audience. A part of us admires his efficacy at getting what he wants, and understands when others concede more and more to him. Appealing to that part of us is the true horror of Nightcrawler, because we understand how easy it is for anyone to negotiate his or her moral codes little by little until they’ve given too much.

Gyllenhaal is vastly overlooked as one of our best actors working today, and Lou Bloom may just be the single best screen villain since Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. While Gyllenhaal eats up the role, Gilroy provides a movie in which there is no wasted motion or excess dialogue.

Nightcrawler increasingly suggests that in an economy where you can no longer rely on employer loyalty and a solid retirement package, where you bounce from gig to gig and the next quarter is more important than long-term stability, it’s the unfeeling sociopaths who do best, the ones who prioritize material success over helping the human being next to him.

Nightcrawler Gyllenhaal Russo

It’s also a salient look into the news industry. 24-hour news networks (and not just one; they’re all guilty of it) regularly cut information and context from their stories, preferring instead to write and edit their own narratives. (This is one reason why I tend to support independent news over national networks.) Even when police are reporting new information, networks will hold off on it when it undermines a narrative that might earn higher ratings.

There’s a simultaneously dramatic and comic scene (and yes, for all its cynicism, Nightcrawler is deeply, darkly funny) in which news anchors riff over fresh footage of a home shooting. Their speculations run rampant as they sway wildly between stating the obvious – “that appears to be a shotgun” as we pan up to see a shotgun – and the baseless – neighbors are told to be worried whether “they’ll be next.” Even as they narrate the footage, Nina reminds her anchors over earpieces to repeat words like “terror,” “fear,” and “violent.” In many ways, Lou’s manipulation of those around him is no different from the newsroom’s manipulation of its viewers.

In essence, this is a movie about a character who doesn’t develop, but instead bends the world around himself. His successes are celebrated and the clear facts that he’s dangerous, a threat, and a liar are consciously overlooked and excused by everyone around him. His victims even begin to adopt his worldviews, repeat the mantras he’s crafted for himself, and increasingly justify his immoral actions as being part of “the right idea.”

Nightcrawler is dangerous filmmaking centered around two of the best performances of the year by Gyllenhaal and Russo.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Nightcrawler have more than one woman in it?

Yes, in additon to Russo’s Nina, it also stars Michael Hyatt as Detective Fronteiri, Ann Cusack as producer Linda, Holly Hannula as a news anchor, and Carolyn Gilroy as a production assistant. Russo and Hyatt get a lot of screen time.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. They discuss news production and confront each other over legal issues.

Nightcrawler is an excellent example of a film with limited perspective (we never leave Lou Bloom’s side) that nonetheless incorporates great female characters interacting with each other as professionals. Russo has a heated scene opposite Hyatt and an insanely good scene with Cusack. Russo also orders her newsroom about, women and men included.

Considering the small size of its core cast, Nightcrawler is one of the best films I’ve seen for involving women despite following a male character exclusively. There are issues of victimization, but Bloom’s pretty equal opportunity about ruining lives. How he delineates what he wants from different people falls along sexual lines, but this has more to do with social definitions of success and mastery over others. This is where Nightcrawler is at its most bitingly satirical.

David Fincher, who has nothing to do with Nightcrawler but directed this year’s Gone Girl, is fond of saying he likes to make movies that scar. Nightcrawler is a tragedy in comic form that doesn’t just scar, it damages. It sits on a tonal knife-edge, and from an acting perspective, only Gyllenhaal could have delivered this performance.

It’s brilliant. I’m not sure I’ll ever want to visit it again.

Wednesday Collective — Net Neutrality, There Will Be Clothes, & the Laziest Way to Write Strong Women

ARTICLES OF THE WEEK
Net Neutrality

Corporate Feudalism

Let me preface this by saying I’ve worked as a campaign manager, a PAC fundraiser, a legislative aide, and for a state Democratic party. One phone call to an aide is more effective than 50 signatures on a petition. If you care about any of this, yes – sign petitions. But the biggest difference you can make, the biggest way you can interrupt someone’s day and get stuck in their head and make them bring an issue up to the politician for whom they work – is by calling. Your Senators. Your Representatives. Your Governors.

Petitions take a minute to look at. Form letters can be recognized and filed into a folder you know you’re never going to look at again. A phone call has to be taken by someone, because they never know what the topic’s going to be until they’ve already committed themselves to listen. A petition or form letter may make you feel better, but it has little real effect today. It gives the power to the clicking finger on somebody’s mouse hand. Aides are required to pick up the phone, answer politely, and listen. It puts the power in your voice.

The biggest reason you should be worried about net neutrality is that the Internet isn’t really an owned thing. Anyone can hop on and, with a minimum of trouble and investment, start a website – it’s the ultimate realization of free speech. The net neutrality cases the Supreme Court is sleeping through and legislation Congress is drawing up threaten that.

Essentially, service companies like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon will be able to double-dip. They’ll charge you for your internet connection, and then turn around and charge websites for their ability to get material to you. What this means to you is that the Internet will start to become prepackaged, like cable TV is. You will be forced into deciding which websites you’d like to pay to access, which plan you’d like to subscribe to, and the open access you have now to every single site on the web will disappear. Small websites and independent ones that can’t pay the service companies will lose their voice.

Service companies will also be able to dictate through bandwidth the political opinions they’d like to support, and will be able to relegate the kinds of independent news sources we most rely upon online to the far corners of accessibility.

I’m not the expert on this. If you haven’t already, learn about net neutrality online. The Washington Post published an infographic that shows how easily Comcast extorted Netflix into paying for a service we (and they) already pay for.

Here’s the ACLU’s rundown of information on net neutrality.

Don’t mistake this with the government’s ill-timed pilot program roll-out of the “Internet Driver’s License,” which would be managed by the government but store your information with subcontracted third parties. I mean, that’s scary, too, the government collecting every log-in and piece of information on you and selling it to third parties, who could then bundle it with other users’ data and sell that to third parties. Nothing like that’s ever gone wrong, has it? But that’s a completely different issue that’s just as scary and threatening, and would only take an extra five seconds to bring up to your Congressperson.

There Will Be Clothes
Maria Bruder

There Will Be Clothes

One reason I push our Bits & Pieces series is to write about the overlooked technical aspects we often gloss over as viewers. Even though we may not select out a piece of set design here or a bit of fight or dance choreography there as conveying a message, these details still burrow into our subconscious.

Clothes on Film is a specialty website that talks about, well, clothes on film. It’s an invaluable resource for costume designers and make-up artists. This There Will Be Blood article is just one of several phenomenal pieces they’ve hosted. Not only can you crash through their archives willy-nilly, you can also peruse their articles by a film’s time period, allowing you to get multiple perspectives on how costume designers find ways to burrow their messages into our subconscious.

The Laziest, Most Offensive Way to Write a Strong Woman
A.E. Larsen

300r Eva Green.tiff

300: 300 Harder is in a tight race with Jack Ryan: Kenneth Branagh Takes a Nap and Brick Mansions (no pun here, I feel bad enough for that movie as is) for worst movie of the year so far. Yes, we’re only four months in, but when the fifth entry in the Paranormal Activity canon can’t even make that list, it means you’ve really had some half-assed films.

300: Shameless Play on Star Wars Titling wasn’t actually a terrible movie. I mean, it was, but it had some neat technical things going for it. Its biggest problem, and its strongest claim to win (lose?) that award at the end of the year, is Artemisia. The Persian general is played by Eva Green, who is the only actor in the whole damn thing who realizes how much camp a movie like 300: Leonidas and Xerxes Escape from Guantanamo Bay really needs. Green (and Lena Headey for all of 2.5 seconds) are the only watchable actors in this.

But the character Green plays is offensive. She’s a strong woman. Well that’s a good start, but why is she strong? Because she was raped as a preteen. Welcome to genre fiction, where men can be strong because they swing Freudian swords around all day, but women can only be strong if they’re sexually taken advantage of. It’s like a trade-off. You can be a weak and virginal female character, but if you want to be strong, you’d better get chained up in the bottom of a Greek ship for years on end while sailors have their way with you. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember Arnold Schwarzenegger being strong in Conan or John McClane being badass in Die Hard because either got raped for years on end as a kid.

A.E. Larsen writes about Artemisia’s historical accuracy, as well as giving his own take on the strong-woman-as-raped-woman issue in a fantastic article that bridges history and social responsibility in filmmaking.

So even though Brick Mansions is the worst-told story of the year, and Jack Ryan: Keira Knightley Can’t Play Every Character in This Scene, Can She? She Can, I Guess is the most boring movie of the year, 300: Screenwriters Please Go F*ck Yourselves is really leading the pack toward the bottom.

The Best Movie You’ll Never See
Sam Adams

Sorceror

At The Dissolve, Sam Adams (he really gets around Wednesday Collective, doesn’t he) interviews director William Friedkin about the best movie you’ve never seen. In fact, catch me in the right mood and I’ll admit that Sorceror, William Friedkin’s adaptation of The Wages of Fear, may be the best movie, period. It has one of the finest endings in cinema. Hell, the whole movie is just one great, big ending. Coming off his success with The Exorcist and The French Connection, Friedkin risked life and limb to shoot an existential, Conradian action movie in the jungle.

Despite being a critical success, it was killed by the release of Star Wars, and Sorceror barely survived. I remember watching a poor VHS copy as a kid, not knowing that most prints had been lost or destroyed over a few short decades. Sorceror was finally remastered and released last month. Watch it, you won’t regret it. And read the interview, though it does contain spoilers.

Adam Sandler as Transgressional Hero
Bilge Ebiri

Adam Sandler test

I don’t know that I agree with this article, but I don’t know that I disagree with it. This is rare. Try it on for size.

The Wily Beast and the Desperate Woman
Hadley Freeman

George Clooney

Freeman tips the double standard in celebrity reporting on its head by comparing media reactions to the engagement of George Clooney to the reactions on the engagement of Jennifer Aniston. He was ‘tamed,’ the wily beast, by one of the world’s most pre-eminent humanitarian lawyers (even though she turned him down twice) while Jennifer Aniston suckered in some poor B-lister I’ve never heard of ‘in the nick of time,’ and he can’t wait to get out of it. You know, all allegedly, because otherwise, writers would get sued. Really, I couldn’t care who’s getting married to whom – I was always rooting for Clooney and Pitt to get it together so they could have an excuse to remake old Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn courtroom comedies – but if you’re going to report on people’s private lives, you may as well be equal opportunity about it.

As Freeman says, “In the world of media, women are tragic and desperate and said, and men are caddish and free. Because the media, apparently, believes that people are like characters in a crap romcom you wouldn’t watch on a 14-hour flight.”