Gyllenhaal Channels Bleak Motives, Thrills Into 'Nightcrawler'

Directed by: Dan Gilroy; Runtime: 117 minutes
Grade: B+

In essence, nightcrawlers like Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) aren't terribly different from the paparazzi who stalk and photograph people of fame, the only real difference being the publicized "celebrity" they hope to capture and sell to the highest bidder. Their target just happens to be an abstract concept rather than a physical specimen, aiming to shoot the most unsettling depictions of gory and/or shocking events so that news stations can amplify their significance on their next broadcast. Violence continues to be a commodity in this sensationalist culture of ours, whether it's in fiction or real-life, and the speed in which news travels further rewards the gumption required to capture these morally icky pieces of footage. Dan Gilroy's haunting pseudo-thriller Nightcrawler isn't purely interested in the mentality of those involved with this line of business, but of a desperate individual like Bloom with the temperament to thrive in that environment when they can't elsewhere, blurring the line between capitalism and sociopathy.

We first see the eloquent, piercing-eyed Louis scraping by to survive in Los Angeles by selling illegally-obtained piecemeal metal to local construction sites, an unsettling parallel to the profession he'll soon become embroiled in. One the way home one evening, he catches glimpse of a camera operator videotaping a fiery car accident (instead of helping), sparking his curiosity into the possibilities of what that job entails. With his work prospects looking slimmer, Louis throws himself headlong into the business of being a "nightcrawler", acquiring the basic tools needed to conduct the job -- a police scanner, a camera, a navigator (Riz Ahmed) -- and learning what makes footage valuable. Getting the recording is only part of the equation, though: he also must get it to a seller as quickly as possible, thus forcing him to network and negotiate with a news-channel producer like Nina (Rene Russo). The ethical boundaries of the job might wear on some, but Louis' personality seems tailor-made to tiptoe those ambiguous lines.

Writer/director Gilroy, who spent time with real-life nightcrawlers to get a grasp on what their work really entails, carefully introduces Louis by illustrating his willingness to cross boundaries, masquerading his sociopathic tendencies as cool, articulate pragmatism. Much of this emerges in his verbalized dialogue with other people, expressing his philosophies on life -- "A friend is a gift you give yourself."; "Why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue." -- in the same way that internal commentary delivers insights to the audience, making his stances during conversations a tad incongruous and on-the-nose in expressing who is and what he's about. There's a trade-off, though, in exploring the mesmerizing state of mind that drives Louis Bloom's deviance without the ease of inner monologues: watching the metamorphosis of his moral grayness becomes an unrefined introduction to what he's capable of, feeling more as if Gilroy's showing rather than merely telling.

Jake Gyllenhaal has portrayed mentally unstable characters before, from a hallucinating teenager passionate about time-travel to a disturbed marine recruit and an obsessive homicide detective, yet none of them approach the depth of psychosis to that of Louis Bloom. Shedding nearly thirty pounds in body weight to convey the mania and sleeplessness of the character, he telegraphs a subtly fearsome performances through gaunt features and bugged-out eyes, calmly articulating Louis' methods and motivations in a compellingly no-nonsense fashion. Gyllenhaal's performance works so well because he makes that heartless candor appear so genuine and practical, revealing how Louis is capable of doing a job reliant on an absence of empathy, a sharp portrayal of a functioning psychopath who's found a way to channel his clinical persona into something lucrative. His work ethic and skill of verbal manipulation generate complex responses from his colleagues, whether it's his navigator teammate or the ethically-pliable news producer who buys his footage, and the performances never lose sight of the veracity of Bloom's persuasiveness.

At first, Nightcrawler feels more like a novel character examination that's content in simply riding the momentum of Bloom's climb up the seedy rungs, zipping through the darkened streets of L.A. hunting for prime stories in a warped success story. The workings of his self-possessed derangement might have run out of steam later on, though, without the right openings for his warped perspective to interact with real-world normalcy. Lo and behold, the beginning merely acclimates the audience to his moral fabric so they'll understand how he conducts himself when confronted with true opportunity, how he capitalizes on, even shapes, the circumstances for his benefit. Director Gilroy enters an unpredictable world once Bloom happens upon a situation beyond the depth of those with journalistic integrity, transforming the story into an excruciatingly thrilling experience complete with frenetic car chases -- including brilliant usage of a Dodge Challenger -- and livewire anticipation during a few truly unforeseeable stakeouts, photographed with mood and authenticity by action-thriller vet Robert Elswit.

There are gaps in logic built around Bloom's ability to slither away from culpability for the things he does, the ethical and legal boundaries broken to develop his prestige, but Nightcrawler's observations on entrepreneurship and the manipulation of media tend to offset those quandaries. Director Gilroy doesn't aim to preach with the content, letting the news-channel's exploitation of Bloom's footage convey its own points about the economics and veracity of sensationalism ... and the necessity of people like Bloom to escalate it. Cynicism isn't in short supply as the story takes shape, either, but that's a big part of what distinguishes this dirty neo-noir portrait: its willingness to follow Bloom into warped, dark places just to see how he gets what he wants, matching the bloodshed and misery of others with his devilish grin as he forks over everything needed to perpetuate fear in others. It's an uncompromising outlook on society, and Bloom's inability to compromise makes for an absorbing hard-boiled thriller.

'Dark Valley' a Drawn-Out, Straight-Laced Boilerplate Western

Directed by: Andreas Prochaska; Runtime: 111 minutes
Grade: C+

Every time it seems as if the western genre has ridden off into the sunset for good, either a brutal tale of revenge or a depiction of survival in the desolate frontier reminds one that there's still some untapped potential there, even if they're simply modern updates of classic ideas. While a few of those sneak out of the high-dollar Hollywood woodwork on the steam of talents such as Tarantino or the Coen Bros., most of the successful examples are skeleton-budget indies from all over the globe, and typically they fly under the radar for a spell before they're discovered. The hope in viewing The Dark Valley is that another to-the-bone genre pic might have emerged from a tale of vengeance and liberation in a harsh, snow-capped landscape, with an up-and-coming character actor taking the reins. While attractively made and occasionally violent in Sam Riley's surroundings, there's too little of consequence to justify the nearly two-hour length, instead suggesting that the well's once again run dry.

Riley stars as Greider, a mysterious stranger who rides into an isolated, punishing township in the Alps , whose purpose for visiting seems to be photography the scenery and its inhabitants. Finding himself in the lodging of a recent widower and her daughter with plans for staying throughout the winter, Greider acclimates himself to how the area operates, namely the heavy and dour manner in which an old man, Brenner, and his six sons lord over the people of the area. Their barbaric strong-arm methods give them leeway to act largely as they please, to which they frequently take advantage of the situation, going so far as to enforce archaic medieval laws in their practices -- even influencing the upcoming marriage between the widow's daughter and a local boy. Brenner's seemingly invincible control over the land comes to a stand-still, though, when one of the brothers is discovered murdered in the forest. Suspicion naturally falls on the mysterious stranger; unsurprisingly, Greider responds accordingly.

While westerns, especially those fueled by revenge-seeking, typically don't have a lot of plot propelling them forward to their shootouts and orchestrated killings, The Dark Valley suffers more from the negative effects of this than other recent genre flicks, largely due to its length. Instead of crafting a tightly-paced and hard-hitting tale of vengeance, director Andreas Prochaska aims to capture the full breadth of the frozen landscape and the burdened gazes of the villagers, conveying the hopeless isolation of the area through slow icy visuals as the valley's darker days approach. He fills the time with unhurried stretches across the white horizon and through the frigid dwellings, and while those deliberate touches of atmosphere might please the senses, they spread the already skeletal plot unjustifiably thin. There's not a lot to contemplate about Greider's psyche or the dynamics of the community during those protracted sequences, rendering eye-catching moments that are unsuccessful at elevating the dramatic tension.

Frankly, there isn't a whole lot to the mysterious stranger's personality in The Dark Valley at all, despite Sam Riley's grim performance working to suggest otherwise. Granted, there is more to Greiner's backstory than the lion's share of the film cares to reveal, harboring unsurprising revelations about his arrival in the township, yet there's only so much character development that can happen through Riley's despondent eyes and noble temperament. Like this, he's little more than a distillation of the traits typically found in other enigmatic "nameless" characters of his ilk, from his platonic relationship with the young bride-to-be to his pacifistic response to the Brenner boys' harassment, and it feels like a missed opportunity at something stronger once his identity gets expanded upon through obligatory flashback sequences. Riley's character has the chance to embody an almost mythical persona, yet the film's so adamant about keeping his identity a poorly-hidden secret that it gets lost in a willfully unknowable fog.

Taking the revenge-western merits on their own as Greiner's motivation begins to surface, The Dark Valley plays out about as expected, no better or worse, with compulsory bursts of hard violence and invigorated gunplay than enliven the later acts. Regrettably, it also pulls unconvincing punches in the same way that less-credible examples of the genre have done since Hollywood's early days, more interested in saving shootouts for later dates and giving characters the chance to live than staying true to the knee-jerk bloodlust they've displayed earlier. If there was more of a point behind Greiner's agenda -- essentially mirroring William Wallace's reasons for angst in Braveheart, minus the patriotism -- then some of those decisions to prolong the demise of those involved might be welcomed, perhaps even justifiable by suggesting that they're playing the situation safe. Director Andreas Prochaska may have orchestrated a credible setting and fleeting moments of tense brutality, but he leaves one yearning for more purpose and distinctiveness, anything more amid its extended length, within a genre that constantly struggles to stay relevant.

'Predestination' Captivating, But Marred by Lack of Prudence

Directed by: The Spierig Brothers; Runtime: 97 minutes
Grade B-

Unless you're throttling a spaceship towards the gravitational pull of a celestial boy, the methods in which time travel occur in fiction will always seem more magical than scientific, no matter if it's rudimentary wired-up cockpits powered by technobabble or tricked-out Delorians and blue telephone booths. What matters is how the time-travel itself gets used, whether for bracing adventure or provoking thought through the themes of meddling with the trajectory of time. Predestination uses a violin case that operates on proximity to the device, explaining almost nothing about how it works as the characters flip the combination dials and hurdle both back and forward in time. What The Spierig Brothers end up doing with those temporal jumps is unpredictable and ludicrous, in both good ways and bad: they spin an elaborate tale of paradoxes, identities, and the lengths undertaken to set the future down a better path, where ambitious convolution turns into both its strongest asset and unswerving weakness.

Predestination adapts a short story from legendary science-fiction author Robert Heinlein, built on the concept of agents who use time-travel devices to right certain incontrovertible wrongs. The story picks up shortly after one of such nameless agents (Ethan Hawke) partially succeeds in a mission, stopping a terrorist bombing without apprehending the suspect. Following the attack, in which he has extensive reconstructive surgery due to an aggressive injury, the agent faces the prospect of the end of his career following the escape of this "Fizzle Bomber", to which his employer, Robertson (Noah Taylor), sends him on his final mission. Cut to the early-'70s where the agents takes on the identity of a Bartender, opening up the opportunity for him to converse with a defensive, severe man (Sarah Snook) that shows up in his bar, called "The Unmarried Mother" for his pen-name in a pulpy magazine. With knowledge of the investigation into the Fizzle Bomber, The Bartender tempts his mysterious patron into telling his life story.

The Unmarried Mother boasts that he's got the most incredible life story that The Bartender has even heard, and Predestination delivers on that promise: his recount, which unsurprisingly starts out with him in the role of a woman, Jane, takes us through a traumatic, windy path through the eyes of an individual struggling with gender identity and a lack of purpose. Sarah Snook turns in a convincing performance as both Jane and John, presenting typical mannerisms of both genders yet never entirely comfortable in the skin of either identity. The scope of her history, which progresses through a tomboy's youth at an orphanage, a ladies' charm school, and the troubling conditions of her transition -- not quite voluntary -- while enduring the rigors of potential government service, builds into a gripping glimpse at a complex intersex character who's given little choice in the path she's forced down. While the circumstances surrounding Jane's eventual transformation are dubious, the heartrending nature of her tale draws reputable empathy and tenderness, constantly informed by the lingering suspicion of their involvement with the Fizzle Bomber.

However bizarre The Unmarried Mother's story appears once he finishes, know that it'll get infinitely more bizarre after The Bartender drops a few bombshells, abruptly bringing time-travel back into the conversation. So starts the wild careening of events within Predestination, shifting gears from a meditative exploration of a tragic character to an elaborate temporal mystery with a scope that defies the film's limited budget, all at the flick of a lock combo on a violin case. The Spierig Brothers never undertake any time-stamped scenarios beyond their means: while most of the film takes place amid the bar's booths and pool tables as Ethan Hawke sports a choker and a patterned shirt, the past events transport characters throughout roughly forty years of commonplace and high-tech training environments, given nostalgic opulence through photographer Bill Nott's composition. Very much the work of the same directors responsible for Daybreakers, the sophisticated aesthetics bleed the past and the present into a unbalancing infusion of realism and displaced science-fiction, hinged on observing how it all ties into thwarting terrorist activity across time.

A handful of negligible snags in logic that are common with time-travel and reality-warping films wouldn't have been enough to derail Predestination, its precise craftsmanship approaching the likes of Looper and Twelve Monkeys in aspiration. That's not the case here, though: the wild descent following the telling of Jane's story ends up being far too intertwined and outlandish for its own good, operating around a loop of paradoxes that would've benefited from further contemplation on the age-old "the chicken or the egg" existential thought exercise it references. Granted, a lot of the aftershocks from the transpiring events snap together and make enough superficial sense to wrap one's brain around the vaults throughout time, so long as they can get beyond certain taboo trysts. Then, it reaches a point where figuring out the movie comes to a standstill without theorization and interpretation over irreconcilable facts, lingering in the wake of dubious -- and conveniently concealed -- revelations about the depths of Jane's identity. Some of this makes for clever sci-fi puzzle solving, but questionable narrative decisions, many of which root in Heinlein's original story, make it a futile and frustrating endeavor.

In the end, Predestination doesn't say enough within its intricate plotting to compensate for the deliberate loose ends, beyond simple ruminations on time-travel being more trouble than it's worth and that stopping events from happening might cause more damage than prevented ... even if intervention appears necessary. Staying faithful to the source without capitalizing on early thematic strengths, the Spierig Brothers bypass opportunities for more significance in its final act -- especially about the gender issues that elevate the character portrayal of Jane/John -- so that the zany plot revelations can speak for themselves. These timey-wimey machinations lead the mystery around the Fizzle Bomber into the territory of implausible psycho-drama and clinical plot dissection, both shining a spotlight on the bizarreness already there and side-stepping how internally warped these characters have become after their jumps through time. Heinlein's short story may not have needed a rooster to account for the egg, but Predestination's otherwise marvelous workmanship feels like it's dreadfully missing something without one.