Beat Breakdown #2: Nightcrawler

In this installment of the Beat Breakdown we’ll be taking a look at the 2014 neo-noir crime thriller Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy. The film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay at the 87th Academy Awards.

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To view a .pdf of the screenplay, click here.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

The story follows mysterious loner (and psycho) Lou Bloom as he skulks around Los Angeles in search of gainful employment. With the often reluctant help of world-weary station manager Nina, Lou begins skulking with a purpose as he embarks on an ignoble crusade to capture LA’s most shocking crimes on camera. Lou takes to his new position as a “nightcrawler” with admirable zeal, but is Lou driven by good old professional integrity, or perhaps something infinitely more sinister?

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 6-12) The film begins with a bit of exposition, introducing us to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom, our wiry-looking protagonist with a superficial smile and unnerving presence. As Lou cruises around LA one fateful evening, he happens upon a grizzly scene involving two police officers pulling an unconscious woman from a blazing car. As Lou gapes at the scene, spellbound by the flashing lights and shattered glass, a news van screeches to a halt, depositing a hassled cameraman who immediately begins filming the wreckage. Lou, still enraptured by the profane pageantry a day later, idly sits at home flipping through daytime news channels. Suddenly he stops, frozen, as a report of the wreck from the night before flashes across the screen. We can practically see the infernal cogs inside Lou’s head begin to turn, as the seed of turmoil takes root.

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 17-23) So the seed of turmoil has grown into a shrubbery of mischief as Lou acquires the camcorder and police scanner that are the staples of nightcrawling. Gardening metaphors aside, Lou’s luck eventually turns when he manages to get an unrestricted, close-up shot of a shooting victim, complete with graphic brain-chunks a reasonably-sized pool of blood. Naturally, this kind of footage is just what the KSML-TV News crew is looking for. In short order, Lou makes the acquaintance of the station manager, played by Rene Russo, who cuts him a check for his work. Rene encourages Lou to continue his nightcrawling, and offers him this piece of advice: “…to capture what we air, think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”

MIDPOINT

(Pages 46-49) To punctuate Lou’s meteoric rise in the world of nightcrawling, Nina when they meet for dinner at Cabanita—which has been called an authentic taste of Mexico City. Nina’s pretensions are shattered, however, when Lou reveals the sociopathic tendencies hiding behind his facade of wholesome professionalism. Lou effectively blackmails Nina into engaging in a romantic relationship, despite her protestations and, in the process, sheds more light on his motivations and goals. In Lou’s own words, he “wants to be the guy who owns the station that owns the camera.” All that’s left for the audience to do is wait for the volatile mixture of complete ethical bankruptcy and psychotic single-minded ambition to come to a head—in assuredly spectacular fashion.

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 60-70) It’s business as usual for Lou, who’s taken on a new employee in an effort to minimize his effectiveness while on the job. With Lou now firmly entrenched in the administrative culture of KSML, he’s got find a story worth reporting, lest he lose his position of power over Nina. While pursuing a possible story late one night, Lou picks up another conveniently located crime on the police scanner. Without a moment to lose, he hightails it to the scene, arrive even before the police. Abandoning even the pretense of journalistic integrity, Lou enters the scene to find a murdered family, quickly and efficiently recording the whole thing, naturally. Racing back to KSML to sell the story, Lou promises Nina that the story isn’t over, and that she can expect the follow-up to boost the tin-pot station’s ratings to unprecedented levels. Unbeknownst to Nina, Lou secretly captured the license plate of the perpetrator’s car, meaning that he alone knows where to find the suspects, and subsequently that he alone can break the story.

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 81-97) Not twenty-four hours later, Lou has tracked down the suspects and, along with his employee, Rick, plan to tail them, only calling in the cops at the opportune moment. The suspects, a pair a burly gangsters, arrive at a busy restaurant—the perfect place to film their “dramatic” arrest. Rick, however, is given pause for thought as he considers how dangerous this operation might turn out to be. Undeterred, Lou proceeds to tip off the police, already in the prime position to capture the arrest on film. The police arrive shortly, and it’s immediately clear that the suspects have no intention of coming quietly. A thrilling, high-speed chase through the busy Los Angeles streets ensues, ending in the suspects’ car overturning. What follows is difficult to describe in a non-visual medium, but essentially, Lou notices that one of the suspects is still armed, despite his near-fatal crash, and motions for Rick to go over to him and start recording. The suspect, injured and with nothing left to loose, shoots and fatally wounds Rick and Lou captures his last moments on camera. With this, the audience realizes who and what Lou really is, and that there’s nothing he won’t sacrifice to achieve his ends.

DENOUEMENT

(Pages 98-108) Rick’s death serves as the emotional high-point of the film, and all subsequent action does little more than reinforce what the audience already knows about Lou. There’s a truncated police investigation surrounding the killings and the video “evidence” that Lou recorded at the scene, but since the police can’t prove anything, it’s little more than a formality. The film’s ending is appropriately nihilistic, but in a sort of knowing way, as if it’s simply the conformation of something we had known all a long. In the final scene, Lou stands before his new employees, imparting a few words of wisdom before they drive off, documenting and causing mayhem of their own, extensions of Lou himself, as if they were his own treacherous tendrils extending, groping blindly, searching, and gleefully seizing upon and exposing violence and discord in the dark Los Angles night. Lou leaves his new employees with this: “I can tell you from experience that the surest way up the ladder is to listen carefully and follow my orders. You may be confused at times, and other times unsure, but remember that I will never ask you to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself.”

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Inherent Vice

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As anyone who knows me can attest, I have a constant, raging hard-on for Paul Thomas Anderson and his work, to an extent, I’m afraid, that might make my critique of his newest film, Inherent Vice, rather more subjective than usual. Be that as it may, I really tried to go into the movie (I think I’ve seen it three times now) without too may preconceived notions or expectations—a futile effort, it transpires, as Inherent Vice is a film that defies all expectations before laughing in the face of that expectation and then slamming it’s head in a car door.

Mr. Anderson, Mr. Anderson, why do I love you so? In large part, I think it’s the way he consistently defies any traditionally held perceptions of who and what we think an otherwise archetypical character might be, and eschews any pretense as far as how you think a traditionally noir/romance/comedy/crime drama ought to work. And indeed, the film is all of these and more, somehow miraculously hitting the bulls-eye at every turn. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name and written for the screen by Anderson himself, Inherent Vice incorporates all the trademark humor (visual gags, one-liners, etc.) that we’ve come to expect from this legendary director. I have no reservations about calling the film one of the hands-down funniest of the year, and there’s an underlying element of pseudo-surrealism that flows throughout, which work in tandem to give the audience a kind of contact-high as they spend more and more time in the drug-crazed, neon-saturated underbelly of the fictional Gordita Beach, California.

The films stars Anderson-verse veteran Joaquin Phoenix as the film’s protagonist, drug-addled private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello. Phoenix, playing what is essentially this generation’s version of “The Dude” perfectly pulls off the effortless yet slightly harassed affectation of a hapless hippie suddenly finding himself in a world of incredible violence that he doesn’t fully understand. Josh Brolin also makes an appearance as the raving-mad LAPD officer Lieutenant Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson and, in one of those instances that the audience can tell that the actors are having a really good time onscreen, the casting simply couldn’t be better. There are cameo appearances abound as well, including the always-excellent Benicio del Toro as the reliable yet eccentric Sauncho Smilax, Esq. as well as a memorable a surprising appearance by Martin Short as coked-up Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd.

Inherent Vice is one of those movies that get better with age—and with multiple viewings. To suggest that the film is dense is an understatement, as there are often so many things happening in a single frame that scenes often get disorienting and overwhelming really quickly. In that respect, the jam-packed onscreen atmosphere serves to emphasize the tumultuous, confusing, and chaotic world that these characters are living in, without overburdening the audience with unnecessary expository dialogue. Anderson continues to be one of—if not my favorite—director because he’s a master the old cinematic storytelling essential, “show; don’t tell.” Accordingly, the film is visually stunning, as is to be expected with cinematographer Robert Elswit, having worked on every P.T. Anderson production to date, save Hard Eight.

The earlier comparison to The Big Lebowski was not made idly, either. Like the legendary Coen Brothers production, the plot of Inherent Vice is damn near impossible to follow upon your first viewing; thought like The Big Lebowski, the point of the film is not in the destination, but the journey. While I absolutely understand the frustration that some audience members may experience after having watched the film and feeling almost completely in the dark concerning the mystery the characters were supposed to be uncovering, I highly recommend that those folks go back and see the movie a second time, if the opportunity presents itself. There are so many nuances and details within details that one would have to watch the film a hundred times before worrying about it becoming stale, but the fact is that with every successive viewing, the appreciation for both Pynchon and Anderson’s storytelling chops will grow in equal proportion.

I could write volumes about how Inherent Vice is one of the most unique and engaging and just plain entertaining movies out right now, but, to be frank, this is one experience that you’re just going to have to see for yourself to believe.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Gambler

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Well, I certainly can’t think of a better way to ring in 2015 than to write about some old movies from 2014. That being said, let’s take a look at the latest Mark Wahlberg vehicle, The Gambler. A remake of Karel Reisz’s 1974 film of the same name, the film was at one time being optioned by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, though they both presumably declined to follow through with the production in order to make The Wolf of Wall Street instead, to the immense relief of everyone on Earth. Eventually, the film ended up in the hands of director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriter William Monahan, and suffered for it.

Wyatt, previously responsible for Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and The Escapist (2008), helms this wholly unnecessary reiteration of a perfectly serviceable, and more to the point, superior film. Wyatt’s style might best be described as competent yet unremarkable, but the real issue, as is so often the case, stems from the poor writing. William Monahan is a peculiar figure in the film industry because, over the course of his career, he’s been responsible for some real standouts like Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), as well as some absolute shit, like Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion (2013) and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). Monahan is slated to write for the upcoming Jurassic World as well, and considering his rather checkered past, you might as well flip a coin to determine how that particular picture will turn out.

Mark Wahlberg stars as the titular gambler Jim Bennett, whose obsessive gambling addiction lands him in hot water with a collection of unsavory underworld figures as he tries to pay off his debts before they break his knees or shoot him in the head or something equally as unpleasant. Jessica Lange also makes a cameo appearance as Jim’s jaded and contemptuous mother, Roberta. Though her performance has garnered a positive critical response, I’m convinced now that Lange literally has only one role in the last ten years; that of the cantankerous fading beauty. Granted, she plays that one role passably well, but we’ve seen the same thing so many times now that it kind of fails to make much of an impact at this point. Wahlberg himself seems a little lazy in this production, and having given it a bit of consideration, I’m not sure that his natural, lovable earnestness is a good fit for the character he’s trying to play; it’s a bit like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

Now let me get back to the writing that I was harping on earlier. I’m having some trouble deciding where to begin, frankly. The protagonist is a whiney, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual; the chemistry between the Bennett and his love interest fizzles out like a cigarette in a thunderstorm; the intrigue is cliché and utterly fails to engage the audience in on any level other than the purely superficial; and instead of characterization being woven and gradually revealed throughout the plot, the audience is treated to mercilessly drawn-out and almost unwatchable expository monologues in which Wahlberg explains how great his character is to an eye-rollingly exasperated audience.

If the film has one saving grace, it’s John Goodman’s cameo appearance as the shady loan shark Big Frank. It seems like Goodman is the only actor in the entire production that realized what a shit-show he was involved in, and brings across his character’s bored, contemptuous indifference with admirable aplomb.

The Gambler is a movie that has no reason to exist, and even more mind-bogglingly, Paramount was initially in favor of a limited-release, in an attempt to facilitate an Oscar-qualifying running strategy. If we’re to take anything away from that little piece of info, it’s that Paramount does not think very highly of the movie-going public, and/or that they have the self-awareness of a dead dog on the side of the road. Do yourselves a favor and skip this one.

Rating: 2 out of 5

The Drop

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This week in cinemas creates an interesting “point-counterpoint” type of situation between A Walk Among the Tombstones starring Liam Neeson, and The Drop, featuring Tom Hardy; these two films, both ostensibly crime dramas and starring well known actors, offset one another in narrative quality. As we’ll explore, the places where Tombstones falls flat are the same places in which The Drop succeeds—and then some.

The film is directed by Michaël R. Roskam, whose only other feature film was the Belgian drama Bullhead (2011) and is written by novelist Dennis Lehane. As the man behind the novelizations of Gone, Baby, Gone and Shutter Island (adapted by Scorsese in 2010), Lehane’s screenplay was inspired by one of his short stories entitled “Animal Rescue.” It’s abundantly clear that Roskam and Lehane make a great team, as Roskam’s careful, deliberate style of filmmaking lends gravity to and emphasizes Lehane’s beautifully paced, character-driven story.

Speaking of characters, the film’s central protagonist, Bob Saginowski, was masterfully brought to life by Tom Hardy, whose understated yet quietly intense performance reminded me, in the best of ways, of Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of the unnamed protagonist in Drive (2011). Continuing this positive trend, the chemistry between Hardy’s Bob and love interest Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace, felt amazingly natural and compelling; more importantly, however, the relationship between the two was vital in a narrative sense (as opposed to being strong-armed in, which we tend to see a lot of in Hollywood) as it provided context for the actions of the antagonist, expertly played by Matthias Schoenaerts, making him appear all the more dangerous and unpredictable. The Drop also features the final performance of the late James Gandolfini, who plays Cousin Marv, an ex loan shark with strong ties to the local organized crime syndicate. As expected, Gandolfini proves to be a perfect fit for the role, and gives a performance that I like to think he would be proud of.

No stranger to the crime drama genre, Dennis Lehane shows considerable restraint by omitting much physical violence—that is, until the final, bloody climax. Instead, the story progresses via the implication of violence and veiled threats as the protagonist is beset on all sides by forces which threaten to decimate the quiet, fragile life that he has created for himself. Throughout the film, the audience discovers that Bob, trapped in the center of an unstable and violent world, might be infinitely more complex than we might have first imagined.

One of the only real criticisms I can level at the film is that there’s an intrigue established early on concerning an ongoing investigation by a Detective Torres (John Ortiz). Presumably, the intent was to create a little more pressure to the event’s of the film and to add a sort of ticking-clock element to the proceedings. While it works well at the beginning and helps to establish the characters and events to a certain extent, it doesn’t really end up going anywhere by the end. I do think it’s a nice touch though, because the police investigation, which is external to the immediate events of the film, lends a bit of perspective and gives the impression that there’s a larger world outside of Cousin Marv’s bar and its denizens.

The Drop, in my opinion is one of the best crime dramas around and easily one of the best films of the year so far. Granted, it’s only just now the beginning of October, but before all the Oscar-bait starts hitting the screen, Roskam’s sophomore effort is, without a doubt, a very fun time at the movies.

Rating: 4 out of 5