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.

nightcrawler-poster


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.”

Beat Breakdown #1: Argo

Here’s a new series I’m going to take a crack at. It works like this: we’ll start by taking a look at the screenplay of an Oscar-nominated or Oscar-winning feature film, and try to identify and briefly discuss the important beats. Maybe I’ll keep up with this feature, maybe I won’t. I’m just such an unpredictable, free-spirited type of guy, you know?

In any case, today we’ll be taking a look at the the Oscar-winning 2012 political thriller Argo, written by Chris Terrio and directed by Ben Affleck.

Argo Pic Horizontal


A .pdf of the screenplay can be found here.

PLOT SYNOPSIS

The film opens with the famed attack on the US embassy in Iran in November of 1979. During the attack, fifty embassy staff members are taken hostage, though six manage to escape and hide inside the home of a Canadian ambassador. Meanwhile, CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez, played by Ben Affleck, begins concocting a daring, go-for-broke rescue mission involving secreting the six erstwhile captives out of the country by posing as a film crew scouting for exotic locations.

INCITING INCIDENT

(Pages 1-9) The action begins immediately as a group of angry Iranian activists break down the gate of the American embassy in response to Jimmy Carter’s decision to grant the Shah of Iran asylum during the Iranian Revolution. Instantly, we’re faced with a simple and effective conflict: the bad guys have taken hostages, and the good guys want to get the hostages back. If simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, then this snappy, effective opening might luncheon with the Queen.

PLOT POINT ONE

(Pages 27-44) So things have gone to Hell in a hand basket, as they inevitably must, and Tony Mendez is called to action (literally, on the telephone) to restore the status quo—that is, rescue the hostages before they’re ground up for fertilizer. In what we experts (read: random pleb) refer to as the “Eureka moment,” Mendez is on the phone with his kid one night when he notices Planet of the Apes playing in the background, thus providing the inspiration for the hair-brained scheme that is to follow. From there, we’re treated to a sort of odyssey of colorful characters and clandestine meetings as one-by-one the various specialists are brought on board Fellowship of the Ring style to aid in what would eventually come to be known as the Canadian Caper.

MIDPOINT

(Pages 80-86) As per usual with your standard three-act dramatic structure, things get real bleak real fast in the second act. There’s an almost audible clunk marking the shift of tone between the Happy Hollywood Fun-Time Hour in the first act and the point where we spend the rest of the film with the escapees in Iran, miserable, hunted, and afraid. The juxtaposition between the two, however, is a masterful touch, serving to drive home how high the stakes actually are. Of course, what is a Hollywood film without some good old-fashioned sensationalism? Accordingly, the story has to contrive an excuse for the hostages to go out in public, resulting the bazar sequence, wherein the escapees attract unwanted attention from an antagonistic shopkeeper, nearly blowing their cover in the process.

PLOT POINT TWO

(Pages 87-92) One of the other major plot points takes us back to the States, allowing us to get embroiled in the administrative side of things. There’s an ongoing conflict between Mendez and his supervisor, Bryan Cranston’s Jack O’Donell, who, like any good authority figure in a governmental hierarchy just can’t resist stepping on the toes of his subordinates. O’Donell threatens to shut the operation down on the grounds that it’s too risky, but Mendez is loath to see all of his hard work go to waste. Even with its predictable outcome, this sub-plot is handedly well and its last-minute resolution adds an extra basting of adrenaline to the conclusion.

CRISIS AND CLIMAX

(Pages 95-113) When we talk about the crisis, we’re referring the chain of events, often becoming incrementally tenser, leading up to the climax. The climax itself, however, is the point of no return. Argo’s crisis, that extended and incredibly tense sequence during which the escapees, accompanied by Mendez, waltz their Western-sympathizing selves through a remarkably airtight security checkpoint. For the sake of drama, all the possible ways in which our motley crew can be sniffed-out are avoided or solved at the last possible moment, allowing them hightail it to safety while still retaining possession of their limbs. The climax itself occurs moments later, at the point when their plane actually takes off. The wheels leave the tarmac, the perusing Iranian officials shake their fists with impotent rage, and the audience can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the six luckiest McGuffins in all of existence got away safely.

DENOUEMENT

(Pages 114-122) It’s wheels-up in Iran: cut to reaction shot of CIA staff members going berserk in celebration. Not exactly original, but it gets the job done, I suppose. As the audience decompresses from the tense excitement of the preceding sequences, we learn which governmental department gets the credit, who has to share, and who’s bummed about it. Moreover, Mendez himself is bestowed certain honors, but owing to the degree of secrecy surrounding the whole enterprise, they’re supposed to be classified. Ah, but surely reuniting with his family after such a close brush with death is enough reward for old Mendez, who we’ve all come to love and respect. So all’s well that ends well, except for the other fifty-two hostages, obviously.