Nightcrawler (2014)

2017 #63
Dan Gilroy | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir thriller is part “state of the nation” observational drama and part character study.

The character in question is Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man who, like so many in modern America, struggles to find paid employment. Indeed, as the film opens he’s resorted to stealing fences to hawk to scrap metal dealers — and, when cornered by a security guard, also resorts to violence. That’s the kind of man Bloom is, which will become important as the film goes on. On his way home he comes across the aftermath of a near-fatal car accident, and witnesses the freelance news cameramen rushing to the scene. For some reason this job strikes Bloom as glamorous, so he buys a camera and a police scanner and throws himself into it. His boundary-pushing enthusiasm soon puts him on the way to success, racing around nighttime L.A. chasing bloody imagery. It’s a cutthroat industry, but Bloom is prepared to go pretty far for exclusive footage…

Any well-informed viewer isn’t likely to glean much from Nightcrawler about the state of modern America. That Bloom is desperate for employment is more of an inciting incident than a dissected issue, though it does also partially fuel a subplot when he employs an assistant. That US TV news is all about shock value — “if it bleeds it leads” — is a truism that’s decades old, too. If the film contributes anything to that discussion it’s to wonder if things have reached a nadir. Writer-director Gilroy says he was trying to tell an objective and realistic story, but it’s coming from a very cynical, almost satirical place about TV news. Or maybe local US news really is that extreme, I don’t know. Either way, this observational stuff isn’t bad, but nor is it revelatory.

If it bleeds it leads

Where the film really flies is in its characters. There are impressive supporting performances, from Riz Ahmed as the uncertain and kinda gullible young guy Bloom employs as his assistant, and Rene Russo as the outwardly confident but actually kinda desperate TV news producer Bloom sell his work to; plus an almost cameo-level appearance by Bill Paxton as a rival nightcrawler who rubs Louis up the wrong way.

But the film belongs to Gyllenhaal. Wild-eyed, eager to please, but not quite right in how he interacts with other human beings, and with a real thirst for the gory profession he lands upon, Bloom has a sense of morality that is quite removed from the norm. From the start we’re in no doubt that this is a guy prepared to take relatively extreme measures to secure what he wants, but how far will he go? As he begins to establish himself as a respectable businessman — or, at least, someone who wants to be thought of as respectable — how much has his attitude changed, if at all? Gyllenhaal immerses himself in the role, skilfully negotiating Bloom’s swings from smarmy charm to emotionless non-engagement with the horrors he films. He’s physically transformed too: he lost weight, didn’t eat, and stayed up nights in preparation for the role. On the Blu-ray, Ahmed comments that the literal hunger Gyllenhaal was enduring contributed to his performance as a guy who is so hungry (for success) he’ll do anything necessary to achieve it.

(Talking of the Blu-ray, its only special feature (aside from an audio commentary) is a five-minute featurette that briefly features the two real-life nightcrawlers who consulted on the film. They share a couple of quick anecdotes about what the real job is like, which is quite fascinating — it’s a shame there’s not a fuller feature about those guys and their work. I don’t know if it would sustain a whole feature documentary — maybe it would — but a decent-length DVD extra would’ve been nice.)

Nighttime L.A. car chase

Outside of its characters, Nightcrawler impresses with technical merits. The lensing of nighttime L.A. by DP Robert Elswit is highly evocative, a netherworld where flashing red-and-blue lights illuminate scenes of carnage. The film’s pace is apparently unhurried but constantly engrossing. You’re not exactly sucked into this world alongside Bloom (Gilroy’s right that presenting him as unnecessarily aggressive upfront serves to stall sympathy from the viewer), but you become an interested observer, unable to look away — like a rubbernecker at an accident, appropriately enough. Several scenes, especially in the film’s second half, generate a level of nail-biting tension, while a climactic car chase is an action scene for the ages. Gilroy’s brother Tony, a producer on the film, was one of the architects of the Bourne franchise, and you wonder if he brought some expertise to the realisation of that sequence. This isn’t a film for adrenaline junkies on the whole, but that scene is a kick.

Driven by a sharp character examination from writer-director Dan Gilroy, brought to life in a compelling, committed performance from Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler is an appropriately cynical exploration of modern morality as embodied by one outsider, moulded in the shape of a fantastic noir thriller.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Nightcrawler is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm, after which it will be available on iPlayer.

Nightcrawler was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 8th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

The Bourne Legacy (2012)

2013 #55
Tony Gilroy | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Bourne LegacyAs Jason Bourne flits around London and New York making trouble for what’s left of Treadstone, a group of shady men go about safeguarding their own secretive activities. When Bourne exposes Treadstone, a series of convoluted join-the-dots links means it could bring them down too, so they set about destroying their risky initiatives, including killing a bunch of medically-enhanced operatives. What they didn’t count on was one surviving…

That basic setup covers roughly the first 30-40 minutes of The Bourne Legacy. Normally I’d hate to describe so much of a film, but it’s not my fault that co-writer, director and Bourne series veteran Tony Gilroy takes that long to get his story up and running. And it’s another 20 minutes before the real meat-and-potatoes of the tale begins.

And it feels it, too. About 52 minutes in I paused it and went to the kitchen. Not for any particular reason; I just needed a break. There, I saw a slug crawling into my dog’s water bowl, drinking the water or something, I don’t know. I’d never seen that before. I ended up watching that slug slowly edge around the bowl for 15 minutes or more rather than go back to the film. It’s that engrossing.

Gilroy has written or co-written every Bourne film to date, so you’d think he knows his way around the franchise — and he does, but perhaps too well. Each Bourne sequel has basically relied on the same formula: “the conspiracy was bigger than you thought, and now the next level up want Bourne dead”. That was fine in Supremacy — indeed, it took characters left dangling from Identity and wrapped up their roles. Cross by name, cross by natureFor my money, Ultimatum felt like it re-hashed this storyline, bringing in new characters to force a new level of backstory and hierarchy. (Clearly most viewers didn’t mind, as it’s widely regarded as the best Bourne film.)

And Legacy recycles this idea for a third time. Now, Treadstone and Blackbriar are just two of many such programmes run by the CIA and/or some shadowy higher organisation I’m not sure is real. On the bright side, they’re not after Bourne, but new escapee Aaron Cross. Not that it makes a huge amount of difference.

If such a repetitious story wasn’t bad enough, Gilroy spends a ludicrous amount of time setting it up. The beginning of Legacy overlaps with the end of Ultimatum, showing us in dully intricate detail what the numerous new CIA characters were doing during that time. And intercut with that we have our new hero wandering by himself across Alaska. For half an hour. This isn’t an art film meditation on isolation, it’s an action thriller — get a bloody move on!

What did Gilroy lose between Ultimatum and this? Well, co-creators. He co-wrote Identity and Ultimatum, and had two different directors across the first three films. Here he’s responsible for the story, co-writing (with his younger brother), and directing. He undoubtedly has some degree of talent, but maybe the other voices were essential to honing it. The other thing a fresh perspective could bring is fresh ideas. If Gilroy has rehashed the same basic plot three times now, surely they need someone with a new story to offer?

Ah, Rachel WeiszPerhaps also, after four films, he’s too close. Clearly that has advantages for remembering the intricacies of the timeline and continuity, especially with the trilogy’s increasingly complex web of conspiracies and conspirators; but maybe Gilroy has become too deeply embroiled in that. After all, he thinks it’s OK to spend the first half hour of the film connecting up the dots between the previous story and his new plot — who really wants that? That’s for geeky fans to do later.

And yet, for all that, the timeline doesn’t quite make sense. If we assume Identity is set in 2002, because that’s when it was released, then Supremacy is two years later, in 2004. Ultimatum is six weeks after that, so late 2004 or early 2005, and Legacy is immediately after that (as I said, the start overlaps). So, it’s set seven years ago? But a character finds a moderately key plot point on YouTube as if it’s the most natural thing in the world… but the very first YouTube video wasn’t uploaded until April 2005. I guess the films operate on a sliding timeline now, much like long-running superhero comics or the Bond films. That or The Bourne Identity is really a sci-fi film set in the Future Year of 2009. Considering the ‘science’ brought to bear in Legacy, perhaps that is the idea.

This is also the first Bourne film that leaves its storyline truly open. The other sequels had threads to pick up on, obviously, but if the series had stopped after either Identity or Supremacy, you’d have still had a complete tale (or Ultimatum, of course). It’s ironic, because this is also the first time I’ve been left with no desire to see a follow-up. The ending reminded me a bit of Saw IV, actually. For those who don’t know their Saw films, that takes place concurrently to Saw III, following different characters and a different storyline. Requisite Bourne movie car chase, with a bikeAt the end, the two films come together, adding a few seconds more story to what we saw at the end of IV, and ready to move on with unified purpose (well, sort of) in Saw V. Legacy feels like it concludes the same way: we’ve been introduced to new bad guys and a new hero, and the events that ended Ultimatum have been given a few seconds more development with a new twist; so now all is ready to rejoin where we left Bourne himself and continue afresh. Except Matt Damon seems to have ruled out that idea already. And, like I said, do we really want more of these characters and their increasingly ludicrous levels of conspiracy?

Legacy isn’t all bad. When it finally moves up to second gear (after a whole hour) there’s the occasional good action sequence. The requisite Bourne car chase is replaced by a bike chase, but I’d happily argue it’s at least the equal of any of the series’ other road chases — the only part of the film that can stand up to its predecessors, because the other fights and foot chases don’t have the same edge. Indeed, a rooftop/alleyway chase in Manila is just a rehash of Ultimatum’s Tangier sequence, but not as exciting. And through all that, the story remains resolutely uninvolving.

And don’t get me started on the cast. Jeremy Renner is fine as an action man but doesn’t deliver any other significant likeable qualities here (and I don’t think that’s his fault). Rachel Weisz is normally brilliant, but here is reduced to a snivelling plot piece. They’ve made her character a Clever Scientist, which is presumably supposed to make her a Strong Female Character too, but that’s not how it’s played at all. Edward Norton Starring Edward Norton staringis wasted staring at monitors; Albert Finney is literally wasted, his one meaningful moment relegated to the Blu-ray’s deleted scenes section; Zeljko Ivanek gets a pivotal character but is underdeveloped and so his talents are wasted; and some actors from previous Bourne movies appear to be credited merely for use of their photos, until they turn up for ten-second cameos near the end that you’d rather weren’t there because it means someone is planning on a Bourne 5.

After the muted reception Legacy got on release I was expecting it to be mediocre — or perhaps, if I was lucky, underrated — but I thought it was mostly just boring, worse than I’d heard, and not even close to any of the previous Bourne films. They’re exceptional examples of the action-thriller, of course, but this isn’t even good as a routine genre entry, because it’s quite spectacularly dull. I do believe they could have continued this series without the character of Jason Bourne — there’s potential in some of the ideas here. But this version just doesn’t work, as a compelling film or worthy successor.

2 out of 5

The Bourne Legacy is on Sky Movies Premiere at 4pm and 8pm every day for the next week.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2013, which can be read in full here.