UK Release Date: June, 2014
Running Time: 109 mins.
Director: Dan Gilroy
Writer: Dan Gilroy (Screenplay),
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russon, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed, Michael Hyatt, Price Carson,
The film begins with soaring optimistic music that tends to play when you have stories about The American Dream but the visuals subvert the cliches we expect. Instead of scenes suffused with sunlight and filled with beautiful smiling people our first images are of L.A. at night, bright neon lights and billboards, wide roads that stretch endlessly and crushingly heavy-looking black skies.
There is potential out there, but it will come from somewhere unexpected.
We soon meet our main protagonist chasing The American Dream.
Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal), a gaunt ghoulish shadowy figure who is comfortable stalking the night. We catch him in the process of stealing manhole covers and other metal objects to sell for scrap. Within minutes of his introduction he will kill someone. By the end of the film many more will die as he tries to achieve his own success story through being a freelance crime journalist, recording death scenes from accidents and violent crime and selling them to TV news veteran Nina (Russo) so she can boost ratings for her middling local station.
The American director Dan Gilroy comes from a family of filmmakers. His brothers have recently worked on a multitude of films that critique aspects of modern America in various genres (the best, in my opinion, coming from Tony Gilroy in the 2010 George Clooney legal drama Michael Clayton). This is Dan Gilroy’s feature film debut and he makes a confident satire of the news media, not that hard to do or even all that original I suppose, but he has a secret weapon in his lead actor.
Jake Gyllenhaal has cornered the market playing strange characters and Lou Bloom is one of the strangest characters so far and one of his most compelling performances. Having lost a lot of weight for the role, we see a man literally looking hungry for success, his slim frame bobbing up and down around crime scenes, picking up new details on how the police operate or on the dynamics of a newsroom, learning how editing works and his videos could be improved to draw bigger audience figures and earn him larger paychecks. When he speaks it is in a polite manner and it is clear he is intelligent because a deluge of information is released, all persuasive and astounding in its clarity. His intense coal rimmed eyes and shadowy features suggest something malevolent is ticking away in his head. As we spend more time with him it becomes clear why he is unnerving, his amorality.
Over the course of the film he works his way up from thievery to news reporter through equal parts sheer guts, manipulation and intelligence. Lou Bloom has what it takes to be a news hound. He has the doggedness and determination to chase leads he hears on his police scanner, the memory and wit to learn fast on the job and understand people and upgrade his equipment, the ballsiness and lack of tact to venture into unsafe territory and the amorality which allows him to worry more about the framing and lighting of a crime scene rather than helping those in trouble.
It would be easy to attribute this to a lack of emotional intelligence exacerbated by his loner lifestyle. We see him isolated from others, seemingly because he has no friends or family. In disarming scenes we see his simple private life in his shoebox apartment where he spends his spare time learning things over the internet and ironing his work clothes while watching old movies. As he cruises the night streets of L.A., he gazes at the people and bright lights with a degree of what must be envy. He is somewhat emotionally self-sufficient and while pained by the stabs of loneliness over his failure in intimate human relations he is more interested in success. It shows in his awkwardness and bluntness when dealing with people and situations where he uses his intellect and bulldozes past people’s feelings. That is a useful weapon, especially in news media. Where some people might shrink from a crime scene to get a scoop, the moral repercussions, potential for embarrassment, and emotional squeamishness making them think twice about interfering, he barges his way in. This results in him manipulating evidence, moving dead bodies like stage props to create dramatic effect. Pretty soon His acts go from amoral to immoral in ways that increasingly shock as car crashes are topped by bigger ratings draws like shootings, car chases, and serial murders and epic gun fights. We, as the audience, wait to see just how far he will take it and if he will fall.
In other hands the character the film is built around would be a sad sack loser, an outsider who may be too seedy for an audience to empathise with, but Jake Gyllenhaal makes him a quick talking, fast thinking entrepreneur, one perfect for our modern age of being adept at changing with the market by being multi-talented. There is something admirable in the way he takes online business courses and reads self-help books, and learns everything by heart and can utilise what he learns to help him progress in the world. He becomes almost like an eager child trying to impress others with what he has learned and so it is easy to be charmed by him even when he acts in unsympathetic ways but underneath it all lies that amorality and ruthlessness and determination to succeed. These qualities are the sort that modern marketers and job advisors try to mould in people for the workplace. The media, with its drive for sensationalism. is just another arena for Lou Bloom and such a cesspool where morality is a small, often overruled voice conquered by sensationalism, allows this man with the little empathy he has for his fellow human, to truly shine.
“I like to think that if you see me you are having the worst day of your life,” Lou says with a big smile toward the end of the film. There is no hint of irony in his voice. It is a line that sums him up brilliantly. It gets a laugh and it is scary. He does not care all that much about others and it is a great catchphrase to frame his burgeoning news business with as he arranges ever more dangerous situations and executes everything with a stunning single-minded ambition and orchestrates his rise to the top.
This film is all about success and having the drive to achieve it. Don’t lose sight of that, no matter how dark the ride gets in this brilliantly dark satire of modern culture and the news.