REVIEW: “Nightcrawler”

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“Nightcrawler” is the directorial debut for Dan Gilroy and I have to say it’s a very compelling one. But it’s not like Gilroy is a stranger to the business. He has a handful of co-writing credits on his resume. His brother Tony has been writing screenplays since 1992 and his directorial debut was the Oscar nominated “Michael Clayton”. Also Dan has been married to actress (and one of the stars of this film) Rene Russo for 22 years. So Dan Gilroy has been around the movie business for a while.

“Nightcrawler” is all his. In addition to directing the picture he also wrote the story which takes a look at the sleazy underbelly of freelance crime scene videographers. Jake Gyllenhaal stars in the film and he continues to impress me. It has taken me a while to come around to him as an actor, but a string of really strong performances has convinced me of his talents. “Nightcrawler” may give us the best Gyllenhaal performance to date.

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Gyllenhaal dropped thirty pounds for the part of the unassuming Lou Bloom, an out of work eccentric living in Los Angeles. The very first scene is telling and gives us a good introduction to this character. A security guard catches Lou stealing metal from a construction yard. Lou jumps him, steals his watch, and escapes. He sells the stolen metal to a scrap yard and asks for a job. The manager pointedly tells him “I’m not hiring a thief”. Within these first few minutes Gilroy gives us several nuggets of information about Lou to process.

After coming up on a car crash Lou is inspired by videographer (Bill Paxton) who shoots footage of accident and crime scenes and then sells it to the highest paying news outlet. Lou steals a bicycle and pawns it for a cheap camcorder and a police scanner. After some rough early experiences, Lou captures some footage of a carjacking. He approaches Nina Romina (Russo), the news director of a struggling morning show, and she eagerly buys the footage. She encourages Lou to bring anything newsworthy to her first.

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As Lou’s ‘business’ picks up he gets a new car, new equipment, and a new assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed). He also becomes egotistic, more ambitious, and addicted to his new-found success. He begins tampering with crime scenes in hopes of getting more dramatic footage and bigger paydays. But Lou ultimately lusts recognition. As the film progresses we see more unhinged and sociopathic behavior from him and we begin to wonder how far he will go down this dark and twisted path.

Gilroy gives us a veritable smorgasbord of dark humor, biting satire, and neo-noir perspectives. There are so many clever machinations that keep things fairly unpredictable and uncomfortable (and I mean that in a good way). Initially it is the subtlety of the evil that is unsettling. Sometimes it is camouflaged within Lou’s quirky and seemingly mild-mannered behavior. Later his actions cross a number of disturbing lines and we see in him a cold indifference to what he is doing.

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Gilroy develops such a dark and twisted tone in large part thanks to Robert Elswit’s atmospheric cinematography and the moody score from James Newton Howard. But the brightest spotlight shines on Gyllenhaal and his sensational performance. He is truly terrifying but in an unorthodox sense. It’s Gyllenhaal’s appearance, his expressions, his postures. But it’s also his inconspicuousness. His character is someone that could gel into society without anyone noticing his existence. Russo is also very good and she gives us an entirely different form of evil. Television ratings at all costs, morals and ethics out the window. But I do think her character is a tad too broad and at times absurdly unethical.

“Nightcrawler” has been getting a lot of praise and I can see why. It’s such a creepy, tense, and efficient crime/psychological thriller. I certainly don’t think it’s the modern day “Taxi Driver” as some critics are calling it and it doesn’t strike all of the chords it wants to. For example its sleepy little jabs at the all-American way and the entrepreneurial spirit come off as a tad weak. But it is definitely effective in far more areas than not and it doesn’t follow any routine conventional path. Add a phenomenal Jake Gyllenhaal performance to that and it’s easy to see why this film works so well.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

“THE BOURNE LEGACY” – 3.5 STARS

I was late catching up with the “Bourne” series which is highly unusual since they are the type of movie I gravitate towards. I’ve now seen the first three films starring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, one of several physically and mentally enhanced government black ops projects. Damon steps aside but the series continues with “The Bourne Legacy”. Jeremy Renner is the new leading man playing a new leading character but writer and director Tony Gilroy maintains an import sense of connection and familiarity with the previous films. Gilroy wrote the first three movies and goes to great lengths to make this feel like a Bourne film while also possibly launching the series into a new direction. While Gilroy does occasionally struggle matching up with earlier films, the movie definitely has its moments that nicely falls in line with the series.

While Jason Bourne isn’t in the movie his presence is clearly felt. Gilroy (and his brother Dan who also helped with the screenplay) connect the actions of “The Bourne Ultimatum” to this story. As Jason Bourne continues to threaten the government’s black ops programs, Eric Byer (Edward Norton) is called in to clean the mess up. His solution – to wipe out all of the human projects and those connected to them. One of those projects turned target is Aaron Cross (Renner), an Operation Outcome agent who is considered a step up from those involved in the now exposed Treadstone. But when the attempt on his life fails, Cross is sent scrambling for answers. He’s also ran out of a special medication that keeps him both mentally and physically balanced. Cross tracks down Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor connected to Operation Outcome who he hopes can get him get the pills he needs. But she soon finds that her connection to the project has made her one of Byer’s targets and Cross is her only chance at survival.

For many, the big question revolves around Renner. Does his Aaron Cross match what Damon was able to bring to his Jason Bourne character? Well, yes and no. Renner is most certainly Damon’s equal when it comes to acting. Renner is completely convincing and he’s got the physical abilities to sell each and every action sequence. Cross is different from Bourne in that there is no amnesia.  He knows he’s part of a government project although the amount of knowledge he has is limited. While this isn’t necessarily a flaw with the character, it did take away one of the most intriguing elements of Bourne’s story. But a slightly bigger problem with the character isn’t as much about Renner as it is the writing and direction. Cross is a solid protagonist but I couldn’t help feeling that he lacked the intensity of Jason Bourne. There are a couple of scenes where he “loses it” for a lack of a better phrase, but overall he seldom comes across as intense or as threatening as Bourne.

Nonetheless, Renner’s performance is very good and he’s also surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Weisz is always great and she’s no different here. Her character is the most sympathetic in the film and I loved how Weisz portrays her through the numerous emotionally charged situations she has to deal with. Norton is also good as the evil government clean-up guy. He easily sells the amoral “just doing my job” persona and we genuinely dislike this guy from the moment he first enters the picture. I also really liked Oscar Isaac as a fellow Outcome operative who Cross encounters early in the film. Bourne fans will also enjoy the small but interesting returns of David Strathairn, Joan Allen, and Scott Glenn. Each have cool little tie-in scenes that answer questions left over from the last film.

“The Bourne Legacy” doesn’t hurry out of the gate. Gilroy takes his time laying out the story and defining his characters. There were a couple of times when I did feel things were moving a little too slow, but overall it works well  and the movie’s third act is pretty action packed. Speaking of the action, it captures some of the same qualities of the past Bourne flicks – hard-hitting hand-to-hand fight scenes and of course a vehicle chase scene. I mean you can’t have a Bourne movie without a vehicle chase and this film gives us a great one. Renner thrills as he runs, jumps, punches, and kicks. Unfortunately his fight scenes are almost rendered incoherent due to moments of inconsistent editing. There were a couple of fight scenes where I literally had no idea what was going on other than punching.

I can see where some would consider “The Bourne Legacy” a cash grab. But even with its few flaws it’s still a fun movie that fits right in with the Bourne series. It stumbles in a few areas and I wouldn’t consider it the best of the series. But Gilroy knows the material well and he knows how to bring new characters into this universe. Renner gives a strong performance and Weisz is wonderful to watch. It also features a chase sequence at the end that is nothing short of awesome. But more importantly, it left me anxious and anticipating what’s coming next. So I would call it a success.