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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Prisoners Review

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Prisoners is a movie that surprised a lot of people, myself included, mainly because it managed to refrain from giving away 90 percent of the plot in its trailer. With it’s clever marketing and big-name cast, Prisoners might very well be one of the murder mystery movies to be released in a very long time. The film is unique in that it manages to mix ultra-realistic, incredibly dark and gritty drama with sensationalized murder mystery intrigue without causing either element to feel out of place, and indeed highlighting the respective strengths of both.

Directed by the relatively unknown Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who’s other films are almost exclusively foreign language pieces, Prisoners as well its predecessor, Incindies, make for a stunning debut. Written by Aaron Guzikowski, the film is rock solid from a thematic sense and almost reminds me of something Paul Thomas Anderson might make if he had run out of anti-depressants in the dead of winter. To say the film is bleak is a phenomenal understatement. Every shot, every angle, and virtually every character is designed to evoke a feeling of desolation and decay, even perhaps disgust, as events unfold amidst possibly the most depressing backdrop of small town America ever conceived, and frankly, I couldn’t be more pleased. It’s this kind of thematic and visual cohesion that tends to take immersion to the next level, and creates a fitting parallel between the inner turmoil of the characters and the aesthetic of the setting.

Starring Hugh “Why Don’t I Have An Oscar Yet?” Jackman as the reactionary, ultra-conservative, hyper-religious father figure and Jake Gyllenhaal as the over-stressed, over-worked Detective Loki, the film seems to take a perverse pleasure to pushing the limits of what a human being can take in times of extreme stress and grief. I heard another critic suggest that, in any other mystery movie, either the father or the officer would either rise to the occasion and become the hero of the hour, but in Prisoners, that hero is nowhere to be found. Instead, the film shows us exactly how low a man wracked with grief and obsessed with vengeance is capable of sinking. Therein lies most of the film’s seer brutality and pitch black tone, which for the most part is pulled off extremely successfully. Now, although Jackman admittedly has the flashier and more dramatic part, special recognition should be given in this instance to Gyllenhaal, who performs marvelously as a lone combatant in a terrifying and incomprehensible world. Be that as it may, Prisoners is not without it’s flaws, most of which concern the story which it so carefully kept under wraps prior to its release.

The problem I face when examining issues with the plot is that I may spoil some important twists. Therefore, in order to preserve some of the mystique and intrigue, I’ll maintain a measure of ambiguity. First, there is a massive portion of the storyline, and I’m talking about 30 to 45 minutes, that deals with a red herring that proves to be ludicrously convoluted a built up to a largely unnecessary degree, but is later revealed to have almost no connectivity to the overarching plot. The connection is extremely subtle, and I’d honestly forgive anyone who thought that an hour and a half of a completely different movie had been spliced into the middle of Prisoners. I understand that the intended purpose of such a maneuver was to keep the tension high by removing the payoff until a point further into the story, but the degree to which this little tangent was played up was a bit overkill. Secondly, there’s one specific point in the story when Jackman’s character, who is presumably possessed of enough bloodlust and murder frenzy at this point to shame the Golden Horde, is held hostage essentially by someone’s grandma. The dissonance between what we had come to expect from Jackman’s character up to this point and how he acts during this specific altercation was enough to seriously take me out of the moment enough for me to question what must have been going through the screenwriter’s mind, which is never a good sign. Jackman literally marches up to this woman’s house carrying a set of tools for the explicit purpose of torturing this individual for information, and when he’s confronted, he basically surrenders like a little lost lamb. In what context is that supposed to make any kind of sense whatsoever?

Despite these few, albeit significant, flaws, Prisoners is a very satisfying, very engaging mystery that is a testament to the ability of both the cast and the director. Personally, I’m very much looking forward to what else Villeneuve has in store for us. For those seeking some thematically satisfying fare after this drought of a summer we’ve had, you could most certainly do worse than Prisoners.

Rating: 4 out of 5

End of Watch Review

It may surprise most people when I say that End of Watch is a film about relationships, mortality, and what it means to be a part of a family, in this case, a family of police officers. Words like heartfelt and moving are not often used when describing action movies, but End of Watch manages to be both an intense action film and a well humored buddy cop movie while incorporating a few weighty, emotional moments. This is a film with a lot to offer. It would be damned impressive if you walked away from this film liking nothing about it.

The premise is nothing we haven’t seen before. The story of two young up and comers in one of the most dangerous police divisions in the country, dealing with violent criminals in South Central LA. It’s the quality of the characters that sets End of Watch apart for your average cop thriller. Officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a smart guy, working as a cop to help pay his way through graduate school while searching for a girlfriend who can actually match his intellect. Michael Peña’s character, Officer Mike Zavala, works well as both the wise cracking comic relief in this film, but also serves as a foil to Officer Taylor, as he is the dedicated husband and father that Taylor wants to one day become. Not only are both of these characters fully fleshed out, but they are people first, and cops second.

The success of this film as a whole is the result of two very strong and very honest performances from Peña and Gyllenhaal. The onscreen camaraderie of this duo is believable and highly entertaining, resulting in some quality comedic banter as well as more than a couple tender moments. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast, as most of the other officers felt stiff and callous, and the actors who played Big Evil’s gang members were a definite weak point for this film. Even so, the performances of Peña and Gyllenhaal are strong enough to carry the movie, and the always fantastic Anna Kendrick does a respectable job as Gyllenhaal’s on screen love interest.

The first half of this film plays out a little bit like a well written version of the TV show Cops. There is no real central conflict. We simply follow the day to day actions of Taylor and Zavala as they take emergency calls and deal with the dark side of LA. The world-building in this movie is important to point out, as writer/director David Ayer paints the audience a picture of a community nearly devoid of any real morals and an often grisly and graphic string of egregious crimes police officers may have to deal with. Without spoiling the film, and be warned there is one big spoiler at the end that could ruin your enjoyment of the film; the third act is really where this film shines. It is action packed, shocking, and something that really sets this movie apart from any kind of traditional buddy cop film.

This movie isn’t perfect, the script has a few issues and it has real trouble deciding if it is a found footage film or not. Even with its flaws though, this movie has a big heart and made quite the impression on me as a viewer. For those who are still skeptical, just go see it, I doubt you will be disappointed.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5