Nightcrawler (2014, dir. Gilroy) was one of the best flicks of last year. I’d like to offer a soft critique of what kept it from being great.

The shortcoming consists of slightly overplaying its strength — the “otherness” of Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Louis Bloom. I read some comparisons to Taxi Driver, and they were apt. For the sake of discussion, let’s also throw in Raging Bull. Since I share some personality traits with the main characters of all three films, it is not hard to be interested and titillated in them. For most other audiences who do not share their traits, they remain fascinating and repulsive anti-heroes. Yet, in DeNiro’s case, he was always very careful to humanize his characters. To his credit this was mostly internal, as he did not ask Schrader to write him a scene (nor Scorsese to film one) of helping a stray kitten or doting on his elderly and infirm mother. As documented in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, during development one of the heads at United Artists continued to express reservations about the Jake LaMotta character, finally blurting out that no one would want to see a movie about “a cockroach”.

A suffocating silence fell over the room like a blanket. DeNiro, in jeans and bare feet, slumped in an easy chair, had said nothing. He roused himself, and said, quietly but distinctly, “He is not a cockroach… He is not a cockroach.”

This is not something that Gilroy and Gyllenhaal show evidence of doing. Their Bloom is an alien. His anti-social quirks and cold obsessiveness make Bowie’s Man Who Fell To Earth look like pure kitchen sink realism. Of course that’s fun. Of course it makes for a lot of good scenes. But those cheap shots ultimately don’t add up.

It’s a serious movie and well-done across the board, so I want to pay it the respect of taking it seriously. Sometimes a picture can’t quite meet all the challenges it sets before it. Our course I’d rather see an imperfect gutsy attempt than a polished turd. Perhaps the failing here lies in a central misunderstanding of the Bloom character. It may have been written and then performed as bits and pieces of strange things they had seen other people do (people decidedly not like them), and visions of what would be interesting or have immediate impact… and with each new layer the human became more obscured until he was finally forgotten. The problem lay in not being able to reconcile that particular strangeness with anything particularly human. It could be the exact thing that Mandy Wallace describes in her excellent blog post about writing for the INTJ character type: The Character Most Writers Get Wrong (And How to Fix It)

To put it very simply (please read the article, it goes into elucidating detail), these types of people come off as robotic and unfeeling and so it’s easy to scapegoat them as villians. I believe I can highlight two moments that, with slight modification, could have resulted in a massive net effect on the presentation of the character, and by extension the whole movie.

1. Dinner with Rene Russo
Just changing the one line (the misappropriated quote), “a friend is a gift you give to yourself”, would have saved this scene. Instead have Bloom stammer out an explanation of why his proposal is okay, in halted speech. Or if you really must show that he has better frame control, then remove the glibness and just have him say “well… that’s what I want”. Yes he’s an OCD autodidact who likes to toss out his little mental post-it notes of knowledge, but I have no reason to believe he has any sort of success around women, and to show the slightest crack in his armour when pushed by a more experienced female would have added depth to the character.

2. Mirror Smashing
It’s a short scene and they needed something to pivot on, get the idea across quickly, and setup his building desperation. I get it. But they made him out to be a MONSTER. A cheap, b-movie, horror monster. Just dialing it back a bit would have done the trick. Or pulling a PTA from Punch Drunk Love when Sandler tries to mangle the soap dispenser in the bathroom and gets nowhere; have the character’s action be less effective and more awkward than planned. I suppose in reality breaking your mirror could be that, but in movie land breaking your mirror to leave a chunk that still shows your enraged face comes off as pat.

Again, I say this out of a place of admiration, bemoaning a missed opportunity to really knock it out of the park. I still really enjoyed the movie and would recommend it without hesitation. To balance this out, a quick list of positives:

  • the Russo character… I imagine she was comfortable working with her husband and they may have been able to tailor the part, but whatever it was they really did something special with the journey of this character, right up until her extremely satisfying final scene (which had the right level of weirdness to it, in comparison to what was discussed above)
  • Gyllenhaal’s physicality… there is nothing more enjoyable than watching a craftsman actor moving around on the screen
  • Arri Alexa night footage… apparently the apartment scenes were shot on film (I found this out after) and I thought they were bland compared to the rest of the footage (a sentiment I would have found impossible more than 3 years ago). Viva digital!
  • crime thriller pacing working with a character driven story… the movie cooked in all the right ways and still gave Gyllenhaal tons of opportunity to chew scenes and dominate the screen. Same for Ahmed, who really worked hard up there to build an absolutely unique, living, breathing character, and play proper foil for Bloom. I was getting exhausted (in a good way) listening to all his clipped sentences and watching his jitters. It had to have been the most taxing role.
  • completely skipping the sex scenes… not bogging the story down with moments of Gyllenhaal and Russo alone in her apartment was absolutely the right choice, yet it must have been hard to leave off the table, what with all the intense dramatic possibilities. All the more reason the dinner scene had so much riding on it.

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