HEARTS OF DARKNESS: Nightcrawler, Force Majeure, and Listen Up Philip


 

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Warning: SPOILERS
nightcrawlerAfter my friend and I left our screening of Nightcrawler, the new L.A. based neo-noir starring a somewhat gaunt and coyote looking Jake Gyllenhaal, we both commented on how much fun the whole thing was.
And then we wondered, is that really an appropriate reaction to what we just witnessed?
Because Nightcrawler is, well, kind of sick. It’s also dark and edgy and depressing and all the other points of the Scouts’ law and certainly one of the more unflattering looks at humanity that you’ve had the privilege of seeing in some time (everyone has Lady Macbeth hands in this film).
But it’s also kind of exciting and gripping and keeps you grabbing at your armrests.
And yes, indeed, make no mistake about it, it’s also a ton of fun.

 

Gyllenhaal, as the character and lowlife Louis Bloom (for some reason I kept thinking of the name Leo Bloom, the Gene Wilder character from the producers…oh, well), is first seen stealing industrial fencing from a construction site to resell.   When caught by a security guard, Bloom does what comes naturally to him: he knocks the guard out and steals his watch.

 

Now, how can you not appreciate the evilness of a man like this? Okay, he’s no Richard III, but he’ll certainly do until one comes along thank you very much.

 

Bloom then continues on his way trying to find some other questionable means of making a living when he stumbles upon some nightcrawlers, independent videographers who troll the city in the early morning hours in order to film accident and crime scenes and sell them to the local morning news shows, the bloodier the better (or as Joe Loder, the alpha male of the group, tells Bloom, if it bleeds, it leads).

 

Bloom is fascinated, to say the least, and you can see his eyes light up as he ponders the possibilities. It’s God’s light shining down on him on his road to Damascus. At last, he’s found a purpose in life, a reason for existence. Of course, it’s a pathetic excuse for an existence, but hey, let’s not be small about it.

 

At first, he Charlie Chaplin’s his way through learning the biz. But fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, Bloom discovers that he not only has an instinct for the job, he’s actually a certified genius at it.

 

And he’ll stop at nothing, of course, to crawl (pardon the pun) his way to the top.

 

Bloom is a man who seems to have no past, no origin. It’s as if he sprang from the head of the shadowy morning hours of a semi-deserted L.A. fully formed.

 

Normally, this lack of a context as to who he is and why he is doing what he is doing might give me some difficulty in becoming emotionally involved in the situation. But here, this lack of a background just makes him ten times creepier. The less I know of him, the more fascinating he becomes.

 

He does have one peculiarity: he talks in business mode/self-help speak. Almost everything that comes from his mouth is something that can be found in a book written by a climb the ladder while taking no prisoners guru, especially the ones with a sociopathic personality.

 

Every interaction with another character is a negotiation, from asking someone out on a date, to hiring an intern, to the going rate for filming someone covered in blood and dying from a car accident…to sex (referencing one of the more effective throw away lines in the movie).

 

When he talks to other people, it’s like he has one of those notebooks that telephone solicitors have in front of them…if your mark says this, turn to page 3 and say this, if he says this, page 4—except that Bloom has it all eerily memorized.

 

There’s something not real about Bloom. At the same time, there is something ϋber real about him as well. The people he meets may find him strange, not quite all there, odd. There is always a look in their eyes as if they are not quite sure whether to take this person at face value or not.

 

But they do recognize his canned, read from a monitor lines and have an instinctual understanding of what is driving him. Because no matter how odd he may come across, they recognize themselves in everything he says and does. It’s like they are looking at themselves in a fun house mirror: a little warped, but they can tell whose reflection it is just fine.

 

And Gyllenhaal, with his sunken cheek bones, unflattering hair style, piercing eyes that have a glint in them and a preternaturally spooky smile that seems both weird and sincere at the same time, delivers his lines using a monotone that isn’t really a monotone and employing a slightly higher pitch to his voice.

 

He’s not quite human, but he’s not non-human either.

 

Nightcrawler is written and directed by Dan Gilroy (it’s his first outing as a director though he is known for his screenplays for The Fall and The Bourne Legacy—well, you can’t have everything). The story is taught and riveting with some exciting action scenes that seem justified within the context of the story rather than just exploitive.

 

Some of the plot, though, and maybe a bit too much, depends on events just happening to work out perfectly for Bloom. He sets up situations planning for results that couldn’t possibly be guaranteed to happen the way they do. But at the same time, the story works itself out in a very satisfactory manner

 

The strongest aspect of the movie, though, has to be the idiosyncratic, even strongly personal, look at L.A. Along with the cinematographer Robert Elswit, Gilroy has painted a picture of the city of angels that is different from many other movies filmed here.

 

It may be a little hard to actually put one’s finger on what makes this look at L.A. so much its own thing, but this is more the city I know, the everyday streets, the familiar mom and pop businesses, the places where most people just live their lives, with the main familiar location being Santa Monica/Venice Beach.

 

I can’t say it gives the town a personality (like a movie about New York City might), but there is something so distinctive here in its indistinctiveness.

 

With Renee Russo as the amoral head of the news department that starts buying Bloom’s film; Bill Paxton, energetically entertaining and very effective as Loder; Riz Ahmed as Bloom’s long suffering “intern”; Kevin Rahm of Mad Men as the only voice of morality in the picture (appropriately enough, then, he is not really given anything to do); and a bunch of people you’ll recognize if you watch network early morning news shows.

 

I do have one final observation to make. At one crime scene that Bloom films, he videos a number of dead bodies and then enters a nursery that has a crib in it. The suspense here is built on whether there is going to be a dead baby there. There’s not, thank God. Gilroy didn’t go that far.

 

At the same time, to this day, I’m still wondering just where that damn baby was if it wasn’t in the crib.

 

force majeureWhat happens when something happens that can’t unhappen?

 

That’s the heart of the conflict in the new and mesmerizing Swedish dark comedy Force Majeure, written and directed by Ruben Ӧstlund.

 

Hubby Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are on a skiing vacation with their two young children. The first part of the film has them in various situations that make them look like models for the perfect family, including one scene where a photographer poses them as if they had a coupon and were at Walmart for the annual family picture (does Walmart do that anymore?).

 

The highlight, though, has to be a scene where all four family members are taking a nap together in the same bed, all wearing matching blue long johns as if they were an ad in a Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalogue (God, remember those?).

 

Though everything seems fine on the surface, at the same time Tomas seems a little annoyed at being away from work and even a bit distracted. Ebba, on the other hand, has a habit of being a bit snarky about Tomas and his slightly distant attitude toward his family.

 

But still, they come across as the next door neighbors you hate because their world is more perfect than yours.

 

And then it happens.

 

The four are at an outside café when there is a forced avalanche (the resort tends to cause arbitrary avalanches on a semi-regular basis). At first, the avalanche seems normal. Then suddenly it seems to be heading not just toward the café, but quite possibly large enough to actually make contact. And as the snow gets closer and people start to panic…

 

Tomas grabs his phone and takes off leaving Ebba to pull their screaming children under the table and try to protect them from the potential disaster.

 

Of course, there was no disaster. Snow flurries douse the café, but the avalanche didn’t make contact and no one was injured.

 

But too late. There you have it. What Tomas did happened, and it can’t unhappen.

 

At first, nothing is said, though in the way where much more is being said than if words were actually coming from someone’s mouth. But what Tomas did can’t be ignored and his actions become the driving force of the story. And when it is finally spoken about, Ebba has the unfortunate, though fortunately for us, laugh inducing tendency to not talk to Tomas about it in private, but to bring it up when others are present.

 

I mean, don’t you just love it when you get caught between a couple’s arguing and you can’t leave?

 

Force Majeure is a biting, effective bit of dramaturgy with strong characters and unusual subject matter that may seem low key, but is actually more riveting and edge of your seat than many Hollywood blockbusters because it’s more down to earth.

 

Sure one can get caught up in whether Iron Man saves the world, but I found it actually much more fascinating and gripping as to whether Tomas can redeem himself in the eyes of his family after doing such a dastardly, if unintentionally reflexive, thing.

 

Iron Man already is a superhero. The question is whether Tomas can become one.

 

After all, there’s only a couple of ways that such a story as this can be resolved.   Either the couple can’t find a way out of the situation and they are forever estranged, or Tomas gets a second chance to redeem himself.

 

Which one happens I’ll leave to you to find out.

 

One of the finer films of the year and the Swedish entry in the foreign language film category of the Academy Awards.

 

With Brady Corbet who played Brian in Mysterious Skin and can be seen in such films as Simon Killer, Clouds of Silas Maria and Olive Kitteridge as the American pick up by one of Ebba’s friends.

 

listen upListen Up Philip, which for some reason has a comma missing from the title (which may or may not be ironic since the central character is a novelist), is the third feature from writer/director Alex Ross Perry.

 

It shows an immense amount of intelligence and talent and has much going for it.

 

The basic premise involves a writer, Philip, awaiting the publication of his second novel (with a rather funny running joke that everyone he meets seems to have read it before it has hit the bookstores). I would say that this situation makes him insecure, adrift, uncertain of his situation, finding himself caught up in an existential crisis…except that pretty much feels like what Philip was like long before he got his first novel published.

 

But it does cause him to break up with his current girlfriend, be taken under the wing by a grand old man of letters, and get away from the city which he feels is crushing his soul (if, indeed, he has one).

 

I would now say that it puts him on a road of discovery, but though he seems to be a genuinely talented novelist, he is also very shallow, self-absorbed and without the ability to discover anything of any real importance, whether it’s at the end of the road or not.

 

Listen Up Philip has a somewhat unusual approach to telling its story. Narrated by an unseen omniscience (Eric Bogosian), the story starts out with one central character, but then tends to take up and focus on other characters as they come to the forefront.

 

It’s an interesting roundelay of a structure and is often very effective because Perry is first rate at creating characters and has a very stylistic way of writing dialog. The characters are vibrant and compelling. What they say is witty and pungent.

 

No one seems real, what they say isn’t really the way people talk, but everything here seems true to the realm created by Perry and its conceit. Perry has sold his style and vision and has created a world of his own that is very effective.

 

He has also assembled a first rate cast. Jason Schwartzman is Philip and he recites Perry’s staircase wit as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Schwartzman plays the role as if he were to the Victorian brownstone born.   His deadpan delivery and underplaying just emphasizes how much of a, a…well, douchebag, he really, truly is.

 

Elizabeth Moss, of Mad Men and Top of the Lake, plays Philip’s long suffering girlfriend. Jonathan Pryce plays the world weary older author. Joséphine de La Baume plays a fellow teacher who tries to alienate Philip at his new job. And Kristen Ritter, Pinkman’s girlfriend that Walter lets die in Breaking Bad, is the world weary author’s long suffering daughter.

 

At the same time, it must be said that the forward momentum does stall halfway through a bit. This is possibly because there may not be enough story. There’s no overall conflict, no real character arc, no journey, no one changes (except for Moss’s character coming to terms that the relationship is over).

 

The milieu and the characters are fascinating in many ways, but they aren’t given much to do except while away the hours and that may not be quite enough.

 

But then again, it may very well be.

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2 Comments

  1. Nice take on Nightcrawler.

    Bloom is so creepy, that his creepiness becomes an attraction that we can’t take our eyes off him. I think I was more bothered by him moving the body at the car wreck than at what he did at the murder house.

    As far as following the killers then calling the police in order to set up his own ‘exclusive’; that was rather clever. But in the pilot for Bosch – on Amazon Instant, the detective followed a suspected killer, hoping to catch him in the act. Didn’t work out that way but doing a stakeout on a suspect is as old as the hills of Hollywood.

    But back to Nightcrawler – I think it was rather a clever bit of film making to put we viewers in such an uncomfortable position. We are supposed to be repulsed by Bloom, but we are drawn deeper and deeper into the film because he is repulsive..

    Gilroy has created Bloom, only Bloom and his ilk have already been created by the news directors of the shows that go with – if it bleeds, it leads, because they bought the videos, as well as by the viewers of such news shows.

    I also believe that Gilroy is pointing a finger at the TV industry when he tells Nina that she needs him, because she has the lowest ratings of any of the shows in the same time slot.

    So ratings drive the content, and the viewers create the ratings – ergo the viewers drive the content. It’s like an endless loop.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing. Yes, I think I was also bother by his moving the body, but mainly because he didn’t know if the guy was alive or dead and he may have contributed to his death. At the house, that was sort of it. They were dead and gone. Though I still want to know where the baby went. And god he is so creepy, but, yes, we someone become very attracted to him. He’s like Richard III.

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