Nightcrawler (2014)

More and more it seems that movies with lower budgets are turning toward horror.  I know there is still a large soft-core porn market as well, but that has existed forever, and probably will as long as Cinemax and direct-to-video (or, in the modern sense, direct-to-streaming) is there to carry it.  Horror is typically where it is at in any medium if you want to do something relatively on the cheap and get some attention.

This is a rather recent phenomena, as exploitation films tended to be largely action-based in the past.  I can understand why they are not these days.  Budgets are typically too high, and many of the typical topics are now multi-season series on FX or Netflix.  No matter how much inspiration you take from The Wild Angels, Hell's Angels or even Born Losers, your biker film is still going to be compared to Sons of Anarchy.

It is with great surprise (and happiness) that there is still room for something like Nightcrawler.  

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a reclusive small-time thief who is looking to make something more of his life.  One night, after getting much less than what he would like for stolen bits of copper wire and chainlink fence, he comes across an accident scene and afterwards talks with Joe (Bill Paxton), a professional stringer who was filming it.  Intrigued by the fact that he can somehow make money in this way, he steals a bicycle and trades it for cash, video equipment and a police scanner at a pawn shop.

His first attempts are clumsy, as the both the police and other stringers are are annoyed with his presence.  He manages to get in the way of cops and emergency workers doing their jobs, while also ruining shots for the others.  He does manage to get some footage that is usable and sells it to a local station via their news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo).  She gives him a few pointers, and he slowly begins to improve, managing to get inside a house where a shooting has just occurred.

After spending some time learning the Los Angeles police codes, Louis realizes that he needs some help if he is going to succeed.  He hires a homeless man named Rick (Riz Ahmed) to be his navigator and protege, guiding him through the quickest routes around the city in order to beat other stringers to the scene.  Despite early missteps, he is soon competing with the others, upgrading to a Dodge Charger from his beat-up Tercel and to professional equipment.

As he becomes better at his craft he begins to demand more money and, from Nina, certain favors in order to keep providing footage exclusively to her station and thus make her job more secure.

Concerned about the competition, and successful enough to expand, Joe offers Louis a place driving a second van.  Louis refuses and, after realizing that Joe might just be an on-going problem, cuts the brakes on one of his vans.  The van crashes, severely injuring Joe in the process, which Louis dutifully films for sale to the station.  However, this planned story of his is overshadowed when he hears about a home invasion in progress in Granada Hills.  Louis and Rick arrive before the police do.  As Louis approaches, he hears gunshots and sees two men pull away in an SUV.  He manages to film them, catching all the information needed to catch them, and then enters the house in order to film the aftermath.

Louis edits the footage to only include the shots from inside the house. The station's legal team is on the fence, but agrees to air it as long as the worst images, and faces, are pixilated.  The airing gets the attention of the Los Angeles Police Department, prompting a visit to Louis from Detectives Frontieri (Michael Hyatt) and Lieberman (Price Carson).  Rather than reveal that he has about every detail needed to capture the suspects, he claims he arrived just in time to see them leave and went up to the house to render aid.

Using the footage and tracking down the owner of the SUV, Louis decides that it is time for his business plan to come to fruition.  He picks up Rick, offering him the title of Vice President (as well as a raise), and explaining what he wants to do.  Louis plans on following the killers until they are in a public space, then calling the police and filming what happens.  Rick is essentially not happy with the situation, and demands half of what they make from the footage, and finally only goes along with Louis's plans after being physically threatened.

This is writer/director Dan Gilroy's first film, and you would think that he had been doing this for years.  In a way he has, mainly as a scriptwriter.  And when I am talking low budget, I'm talking around eight million dollars, but you would not be able to tell.  Location filming and minimal effects (saving the big action scene for the end) help, as well as one of the biggest named stars (beside Gyllenhaal and Paxton) being your wife.

Truth is, the action is not the central part of the movie at all.  Instead, Louis Bloom is, as he should be.  Gilroy has managed to fashion a film that is a combination of L.A. Confidential, Network and American Psycho.  Unlike the latter movie, where you are never really sure if Patrick Bateman is truly acting out his baser instincts or if much of what happens is in his head, Bloom is unapologetic about who he is.  He is more than willing to lie to authorities and do what he can to succeed, and it is to Gilroy's credit that there is nothing in the movie that makes Bloom a sympathetic figure.  Bloom is completely educated on business and other matters by locking himself in his apartment and learning what he can from the internet.  He admittedly hates people, and has no qualms of showing individuals he deals with his true face.  The fact that many people either can't see past (or refuse to see past) his thin veneer of civility, or even still going along with him although they know he is a monster, says quite a lot about what you can get away with if you are perceived to be successful.

Rene Russo is a veteran actress, so she does a great job with her part as usual, especially when you can see her almost physically struggle with how much she is willing to morally compromise to keep her job.  Riz Ahmed plays Rick as streetwise, but not as a cartoon.  He genuinely depends on his job with Bloom, and naively believes that there may be something beyond the corporate-speak and constant verbal abuse.

It is hard to say if Nightcrawler would be what it is without Jake Gyllenhaal giving his all to the character, but he definitely brings to life one of the best movie villains of recent years.  Everything comes together to hopefully remind many aspiring filmmakers that not everything needs to be a CGI spectacle, and there is still room for films like this.  If the major studios keep practically bankrupting themselves to earn small margins, it may be directors like Gilroy that ultimately save them - unless, of course, he gets stuck heading up the umpteenth attempt to make a Fantastic Four movie watchable.

Nightcrawler (2014)
Time: 118 minutes
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
Director: Dan Gilroy

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