Nightcrawler film review
Phyl van Ammers
Only two other people sat in the theater in downtown Concord to see Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhall and Rene Russo. Perhaps because tonight is Thursday – the day the theater adds a new movie. Perhaps because people thought it was another Halloween movie, and Halloween is over. Or perhaps prospective film viewers thought that this Nightcrawler was the comic book superhero Nightcrawler in the Marvel Universe, who is able to teleport across both short and long distances and has adhesive hands.
After the movie ended, I listened the two other people that had been in the audience. One said she wasn’t going to be able to sleep after seeing this film. The other said she didn’t like Jake Gyllenhall anymore.
I thought the film was predictable from almost the beginning: the protagonist is a psychopath in a corrupt world; his flawed but human partner “Rick” (apparently Latino but the actor Riz Ahmed is a British actor, writer and rapper of Pakistani heritage who graduated from Oxford– Middle Eastern) is going to die, and Lou Bloom (Gyllenhall) will be the cause. Bloom is going to sacrifice Rick, and Rick is going to deserve it because he allowed himself to get sucked in. That Rick dies and Lou thrives is a twist on noir. Noir, which grew out of Greek tragedy and French realist writing, means the psychopathic protagonist will die, sometimes from falling, say from a train, as Joseph Cotten died in Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt, or sometimes his partner in crime kills him, like in Double Indemnity (1944).
Noir protagonists are sympathetic, and they look normal.
Why any fairly normal man — Lou’s assistant Rick — even a man who had to give up a career of blowing and mowing because of hay fever and has to work in Hollywood as a male prostitute even though he’s straight, has to know that Jake Gyllenhaal is one of Them, one of the monster people from hell because he never blinks and his eyes show way too much white around the pupil. Gyllenhall is as thin as a skeleton. His skin is stretched tight across his face. The actor has a normal face with sleepy eyes, so maybe the makeup artist glued the actor’s eyes open to enhance his reptilian appearance.
It’s hope that gets Rick. Rick hopes Lou Bloom is going to get him out of the garage he lives in and the tricking on Hollywood Boulevard. He would also like to have a car – he has to take three buses to meet Lou the first time. Not having a car in Los Angeles means you are near the very bottom of the social hierarchy. The next step down is to sleep under a viaduct or in the LA River or Skid Row.
Lou and Rick drive back and forth on what may be Ventura Boulevard in Encino. They pass the same I-Hop International House of Pancakes three times, and there is an I-Hop on Ventura Boulevard. Palm trees glitter. The backdrop for “Channel 6” is the brilliant neon night of Los Angeles. Lou looks at it and says, “It looks real on television.” Nina says, “Yes. It does.” The glimmer of the city is both the real city and the fake backdrop created by Channel 6 for its newscasters.
Lou tells the Rene Russo character Nina Romina he comes from the north valley. The pivotal murder scene occurs in affluent Granada Hills, which is part of the north valley. Mt. Hollywood appears from both the HOLLYWOOD sign and from the valley side. From the valley side, that low boxy mountain appears weird, almost science fiction-like.
Nina’s emphasis — to ensure her contract gets renewed — is on tragedies that happen to white people, to people who should be afraid in their affluent neighborhoods. She appeals to the fear of white middle class people that the crime in minority neighborhoods reaches them, and they are not safe. She suppresses the information that the mansion where three murders took place is a drug trafficker’s house.
Nina is supposed to be twice Lou’s age. She is 59 in real life, born in Burbank and does not look old. To look old for the part, Russo wears cheap face make up and covers her eyes in black eyeliner. Lou demands over a Mexican dinner that Nina sleep with him. She turns him down but he blackmails her: she’s up for contract renewal, and she needs his graphic immoral filming to survive. Lou tells Nina that people say they watch the news for information, but that only 22 seconds on average of television newscasts is about politics or about education. She doesn’t react. She is aware of this fact. She is an old beautiful desperate woman at the end of her career, and she will do anything to further her career. Lou says, “I like how you smell.” You can easily imagine that his alligator tail sways slowly under his restaurant seat. Does she smell good like prey or does he scent a fellow predator? Later, he refers in an undertone to a night in her apartment, and his insinuation that they had sex is further implicit blackmail but she is already his accomplice.
A “night crawler” is an earthworm found on the soil surface at night and used for fish bait. It also means a person who is socially active at night.
In the film, a night crawler is one of those cameramen who come out at night to follow accidents, car chases, burning buildings – human trauma – during the vampire television news shift.
Lou begins his odyssey abruptly. He lives in an apartment in an anonymous neighborhood taking on-line courses in business. He carefully waters his one plant and looks from his window at a bleak street.
He steals: sewer lids, copper wiring and metal fencing. A security guard approaches and asks for his I.D. He explains that he is lost, but he emerges with the security guard’s watch. He wasn’t lost. He was there to steal. The film does not explain how it is that a very smart 34-year old man from a middle or upper middle class neighborhood has little formal education and makes a living as a thief.
He steals a bicycle in Venice and sells it for enough to buy a camera and a device that reads police calls. He cuts the brakes on his competitor’s van. He arrives at the Granada Hills mansion in time to film the murderers and conceals this from the police in order to stage the murder of policeman at a Chinese take out. He films Rick as Rick lies dying after the shoot out. Rick looks up at him, and his eyes show that he knows Lou betrayed him. Lou lets him know that he has allowed him to die because Rick broke his contract with him – for just a few minutes, but that’s enough to satisfy Lou’s amoral personal code.
The film indicts the news broadcasting industry in Los Angeles. LA television news is mostly about car chases and car accidents and murders. Newscasters do poke microphones in the faces of horrified and grieving survivors to get their reactions.
Nothing people do is value-neutral. The emphasis on violence in average and better neighborhoods of the city on the news engenders fear of poor people, as if there were not enough of that already. A viewing diet of crime and crash reporting and CSI and Criminal Minds is only fortified by the mindless mush of most sit-coms, dancing with stars that do not dance well, and talking heads screaming unintelligibly at each other across a table.
The thrust of most television is one that pushes people to the political right.
A subtle historic and geographic subtext runs beneath Lou’s birth in the north valley, his long rides along Ventura Boulevard and the murders in Granada Hills. The LA Aqueduct’s terminus was Owensmouth, a farming town established in 1912 when farmers engaged in “dry” wheat farming. William Mulholland designed the aqueduct, and his son purchased land to establish the Mulholland Orchards. That land became available for fruit-growing because of the LA Aqueduct, and members of the Los Angeles of the business elite, including Harrison Grey Otis, who owned the LA Times, not only promoted the aqueduct but also purchased much of the San Fernando Valley in anticipation of the increased water flow. Los Angeles taxpayers became irate when they learned the water most immediately benefited the valley, and so the city annexed most of the valley, including the neighborhoods known as Encino, Granada Hills, Northridge, Canoga Park, Tarzana and Reseda. The City’s theft of the Owens Valley water enabled developers to turn the orchards and farmland into suburbia, with all of the many problems of suburbia, to the benefit of private interests. Lou is an individual psychopath, but the Los Angeles government and its true constituents, the business oligarchy, manifested acceptable greed.