Alison Willmore: The Toronto International Film Festival is known for being the first place to see the movies we spend the rest of the year gabbing about — like 2013 Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, which floored audiences here last September. So far, Adam, you and I have gotten to see some good films and some high-profile disappointments at this year's fest, but nothing to get too excited about — until today.
We just left a screening of Nightcrawler, which felt like fall's first real bolt of electricity. It's a dark satire written and directed by Dan Gilroy, who's scripted some big features before (The Bourne Legacy, Real Steel) but never helmed one until now. Nightcrawler stars a wiry Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, an apparently friendless and family-free thief who talks his way into the freelance TV news business, and turns out to be terrifyingly good at it, in part because he's a sociopath. What do you think it is about this movie that feels so resonant when other recent attempts at being timely about The Way We Live Now (like Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children) have missed the mark?
Adam B. Vary: So many ways, Alison! The movie often feels like a modern day Network, with an acid-sharp take on our TMZ, camera-in-your-face media era. Rene Russo — who is so great, it made me lament anew that she does not work more often — plays Nina, a former local reporter turned morally compromised news director who buys Lou's freelance videos precisely because Lou's lack of moral reticence at capturing the most lurid footage possible makes for fabulous if-it-bleeds-it-leads television. (One of the many small details Nightcrawler gets exactly right is the generic professionalism of local TV news graphics and anchor sets.)
What makes the film such an exhilarating kick, however, is how it is also about how the media world has been turned inside out by scrappy, self-determined loners who live online — Lou could be a proxy for any number of super-posters on Reddit or 4chan. He talks with a breathless, professional self-help patter, especially to his (literally) hungry assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Four Lions). We know virtually nothing about his background or upbringing, except that he's apparently created himself whole from years of learning how to be human from the internet.
He is a brilliant creation by Gilroy, and Gyllenhaal gets under his skin with an alarming — and even delightful — ease. I feel like he's really never been better, no?
AW: He's very, very good, and he's never looked so dead behind those giant Bambi eyes, especially when they're reflecting the light at the sight of an accident or crime he's filming. Lou smiles and throws around terms like "negotiating" and "leverage," talking about his "company" (consisting of him, a camera, and a beat-up car, and eventual "intern" Rick), "opportunities," and "connections." This tic come across as amusing, somewhat creepy pretension, until the footage he's getting demands he get taken seriously.
It's not just that Lou's willing to put lives in danger in order to race to the scene first. He has no sense of propriety, of it ever being inappropriate to film something, and as invasively as possible. Given the images that have ruled the news cycle lately — God, given the stills from the beheading videos that were splashed on the front pages of the New York Post and Daily News — Lou's eagerness to sneak past barriers and to shove his camera in the face of a dying man, and the success he finds because of it, barely seems like satire. He's disturbing, but we're totally with him in his journey, because he feels like the perfect, awful creature for his time.
ABV: I know what you mean. The film carries this thread of moral dread — like Rick, and some of Nina's co-workers, we're left with an almost constant unease with what Lou is doing, and the joy with which he's doing it, even as we're compulsively itching to see what lines he'll cross to get what he wants. That tension is relentless, and, for me, pretty fabulous — but I can also see how it could feel too dark or cynical for some audiences.
What makes this a "total" film for me, though — as in, a movie that works emotionally, intellectually, and visually — is how Gilroy brings an intensely cinematic point of view to every shot that never pushes into look-at-what-I-can-do showboating. That can be as simple as Gilroy's patient use of close-ups as Lou wears down Nina's defenses on one of the most hilariously uncomfortable first dates ever, or the visceral, ethically queasy fluidity with which he shoots Lou's headline-grabbing discovery of a crime scene before the police have even arrived. And the climactic car chase will easily be among my absolute favorite pure action sequences this year. (To say anything more about it feels like a true spoiler, such is Gilroy's skill at pushing his plot into unexpected directions.)
AW: It certainly goes to dark places, but it hurtles forward through the nighttime streets of Los Angeles with such gleeful energy and unpredictability that it's never dreary. And it may be cynical about the media, but when Russo's character describes to Lou the kinds of stories their audience most responds to, ones about upscale whites victimized by poor, minority criminals, about a creeping urban threat — well, that is a guiding narrative of a lot of fear-mongering TV news; it would just never be outlined so openly.
Nightcrawler lands its punches because, even in its extreme moments, it doesn't feel like it's being unfair, just bleakly exaggerated. If I have any complaints, it's that, as good as Gyllenhaal is, he's a little too old for the character, who is written in some ways as a monstrous take on a millennial, a historyless go-getter trying to break into his dream industry by doing whatever it takes. He's a savvy entrepreneur and a guy who sees no reason why he shouldn't be allowed to film everything. Who knew that could be such a frightening combination?