December 2014 – January 2015

Arts & Letters

Creatures of the night

By Luke Davies
Dan Gilroy’s ‘Nightcrawler’ and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ‘Birdman’

“Will this be on television?” Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) asks a news stringer who is shooting footage of a woman being freed by police from a burning car. “Morning news,” says the cameraman. “If it bleeds, it leads.”

It’s early in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (in national release); we’ve established that Lou is a bottom feeder, stealing copper and fencing wire from desolate industrial sites and selling them to scrap-metal dealers. Driving along the freeway and spotting the accident, he pulls over – to gawk, it would appear, rather than to help. The act of calmly pulling over to the dangerous verge of an eight-lane freeway, and the blank-faced, unemotional curiosity that goes with it, sets Lou apart here. We’ve all rubbernecked, in passing; the unblinking Lou seems to be different.

He is, in fact, a sociopath. So, too, were two great Robert De Niro characters, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976) and Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (1982). But we were mesmerised by the vulnerability and awkwardness of Bickle and Pupkin, two of cinema’s transcendent misfits, and there was some part of them that believed, however delusionally, that they were good people fighting for good causes. For all their demented zeal, and drivenness, they had interiority and psychological complexity. And they had warmth.

These are not qualities that first-time director Gilroy chooses to seek, or create, in Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom, and it makes Nightcrawler a problematic viewing experience, even though on the surface it’s a tight film with a crisp, clear narrative. In short order, Lou buys himself a camcorder and a police scanner, reinvents himself as a freelance “videographer”, heads out into the smog-glittered Los Angeles nights in search of traumas, accidents and general mayhem, and works out who, at the TV stations that buy this kind of footage, needs to be manipulated and seduced – in other words, where the power lies.

He’s quite the social climber. He’s a fast learner, getting the police radio codes down pat. He spouts glib self-help aphorisms. He finds Rick (Riz Ahmed), a desperate, homeless, unemployed man grateful to become his unpaid intern. He learns how to frame, how to zoom, how to reduce camera shake. As he gets more organised, he starts cataloguing and naming the clip files on his hard drive: ‘Horror in Echo Park’, ‘Drunk Mom Kills Biker’, ‘Toddler Stabbed’.

“How much of this can we show?” asks Nina (Rene Russo), a news producer at a local station, about some incendiary footage Lou has brought in.

“You mean legally?” says a colleague.

“No, morally,” retorts Nina. “Of course I mean legally!”

In this world, we’re way past morals. “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman,” says Nina to Lou, by way of a mission statement, “running down the street with her throat cut.”

Nina, the “news director on the vampire shift on the lowest rated station in Los Angeles”, in Lou’s own words, is speaking metaphorically; Lou Bloom is more of a literalist. In the 24-hour news cycle of Nightcrawler, frenetic, over-hyped crime reportage means increased ratings.

Lou, untroubled by scruples, drifts through the vacuum with a pleasant smile. He gets that all this is a kind of theatre. “I’m focusing on framing,” he tells Nina, excited that she’s pleased with an exclusive “scoop” he shows her. We’ve just seen him arrive first at a fatal accident and drag a dead body into the beam of a car’s headlight for better lighting and a better angle.

Crisp, clear narrative aside, much of Nightcrawler feels obvious, and obviously “constructed”. We get that Gilroy intends a form of mordant social satire, but the resolutely one-note Lou renders the film oddly inert. While its targets are real, we’re never really made to feel uncomfortable, or implicated in the voyeurism it depicts. Since Lou knows no uncertainty, there’s not much to engage with.

Still, as a dark Abbott to hapless Riz Ahmed’s Costello, Gyllenhaal provides some suitably creepy chills. Viewed this way – as a demented buddy movie about a sociopathic opportunist and a broke, desperate, illiterate guy with an unformed moral conscience – Nightcrawler almost works.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (in national release 15 January) is a cerebrally, emotionally, culturally and technically breathtaking film. It is infused with anger, sorrow and a sort of mad, wild joy. It makes grand entertainment of sombre subject matter: ageing, the passage of time, our collective and inevitable falls from glory. And it lets rip at the media – or perhaps the entire pop-cultural edifice – with genuine savagery, in a way that makes Nightcrawler look like a telemovie on the Hallmark Channel.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor trying to rehabilitate his career by directing and starring in his own Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’. A long time ago, Riggan had starred as the movie franchise superhero Birdman. (A long time ago, Keaton played Batman.) Riggan’s Birdman, his old self, is a constant voice in his head, a kind of critical superego. “You were a movie star, remember? Pretentious, but happy. Ignorant, but charming.” And now? “Now you’re just a tiny, bitter cocksucker.”

For Riggan, the play represents a chance at salvation. As opening week nears, the production loses one of its actors to a mishap that may or may not be related to Riggan’s telekinetic powers, which may or may not exist only in his head. (The film has a marvellously easygoing relationship with its deadpan moments of magic realism.)

The scramble is on to find a replacement actor, at short notice. The really big names are unavailable. “That clown doesn’t have half your talent,” says Riggan’s producer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis), of Robert Downey Jr, “and he’s making a fortune in that tin-man getup.” They settle on Mike (Edward Norton), a critically respected method actor who’ll bring some gravitas to the production, despite his reputation for being “difficult”.

He’s not just difficult: he turns out to be a gloriously narcissistic control freak, who drives Riggan spare through the course of the film. He’s arrogant and a perfectionist, but he’s very, very good. (Norton is excellent too.) Mike takes his method acting to extremes: on one of the preview nights, he drinks real alcohol on stage, breaks the fourth wall, has a tussle with Riggan, and torpedoes the entire performance. Does he care? No, he does not. “These are the people who pay half price to watch us rehearse,” he tells Riggan dismissively.

Mike is ostensibly Riggan’s antagonist in Birdman, but in fact Riggan is at odds with everyone and everything: his flaky daughter, Sam (a beautifully off-the-wall performance by Emma Stone); himself; his past self; a theatre critic out to “kill” his play (“You’re not an actor, you’re a celebrity”); the Birdman voices in his head; his former fame; the Birdman who follows him around, in costume; the world itself. “I wasn’t even present in my own life,” he says, remembering those former times, former splendours, “and now I don’t have it.”

Iñárritu released his first film, Amores Perros, in 2000, a year before his fellow Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También. Amores Perros was gritty, a multi-strand narrative with a lot of flash, but the gentler Y Tu Mamá También was the better film. Cuarón went on to make one of the Harry Potter films, then the excellent Children of Men (2006) and 2013’s Gravity, a simple tone poem set in space and adroitly executed. Iñárritu made the messy, unsatisfying 21 Grams (2003), the less messy, more satisfying Babel (2006), and the compelling but deeply depressing Biutiful (2010), a film that beat you so thoroughly with the bleak stick you felt bruised.

My bet would have been on Cuarón to produce the next masterpiece, but Birdman is endlessly exhilarating in its controlled power. Antonio Sanchez’s terrific percussive drum score might make you feel you’re watching an improvised jazz riff, but the film is planned and production-designed to within an inch of its life. There’s a seamlessness between Riggan’s inner and outer lives, and between the merely real (he’s a man putting on a play) and the magically real (it appears he may have actual superpowers).

Among Birdman’s myriad pleasures is Emmanuel Lubezki’s audacious cinematography: until near the end, the film is shot to look like a single long take (in reality there are a number of edit points, cleverly disguised), so that form quite literally meets function, the drama’s incessant restlessness dovetailing with Riggan’s existential condition. Time jumps occur, but our experiences of time remain fluid.

Keaton’s comeback performance about a comeback performance is genuinely moving, and it’s somehow easy to imagine a symbiotic relationship between Riggan’s fears and anxieties and those of the actor playing him. “Give the people what they want,” says Birdman to Riggan. “Not this talky, depressing philosophical bullshit.” But Riggan knows that the old world – the superhero world – was nonsense too. The entire culture is sick: the media, the mechanics of fame, the vacuity of celebrity. And Riggan is an equal-opportunity hater.

That makes Birdman deeply funny, for all Riggan’s bile and discontent. The film has a fearless anger. It sticks the boot into everyone.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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