Posts Tagged ‘thriller’


Director: Dan Gilroy

Writer: Dan Gilroy

Country: USA

Runtime: 117 mins

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Joe Paxton

Jake Gyllenhaal excels as a psychopathic news cameraman working his way up the ladder of power

Dan Gilroy’s superb first directorial effort, Nightcrawler, is the gripping story of a ruthless nobody-turned-freelance-cameraman who works his way up the ladder by taking risks and transgressing moral boundaries. But really, Nightcrawler is more than this. It is a dark satire on the kind of Randian objectivist philosophy, which champions the pursuit of individual self-interest within a system of laissez-faire capitalism. Gilroy shows how this kind of world corrupts everybody who comes into contact with it.

The film begins with a gaunt, straggly-haired, Louis “Lou” Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), trying to scrape a living by stealing copper wire and other metallic items in order to sell to a scrap yard. But Bloom is not just an ordinary guy ducking-and-diving to make his way through hard times. He is a psychopath. In the opening scene, whilst Bloom is trespassing in order to cut a section of wire fence, he is challenged by a security guard. Bloom attacks the guard and steals the chunky watch he is wearing. As later events transpire Bloom’s character never changes. The only sense in which he learns is by digesting information from the internet that he then uses to his advantage in his interactions with others. It is the people around Gyllenhaal who change, becoming more compromised and corrupted as he manipulates them (although the news environment itself is already the ideal environment for such manipulation to occur).

Bloom discovers a way to escape from his world of petty crime when, whilst driving down the Los Angeles freeway, he encounters a news crew filming a bloody crash scene. Buttonholing one of the cameramen, Joe (Joe Paxton), he learns that they are a freelance outfit selling to whichever station pays the most.  Bloom steals a bicycle and takes it to a used goods store, where he swaps it for a camcorder and a police band radio. From this point onwards he starts muscling in at accident and crime scenes, racing to beat other crews to get the first pictures.

After selling some footage to Nina (Rene Russo), the head of a local newsroom, she gives him advice about the kind of footage they are seeking, which is predominantly white victims in the suburbs being hurt at the hands of the poor or ethnic minorities. She sums up the spirit of what they air as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”.

Bloom recruits a homeless Asian guy, Rick (Riz Ahmed), as a low-paid intern, whose job is “to listen to the emergency radio, learn the police codes, help navigate and watch the car”. Like a ghoulish version of his namesake in Ulysses, Bloom stalks the city streets with Rick seeking death and injury. With an eye as to what makes a good shot, he begins to rearrange crime and accident scenes for his own benefit, and to intrude on private property. His relationships with others are entirely economic transactions. One moment Bloom is threatening Rick with the sack for spilling petrol on the paintwork of his car, but the next moment he is dishing out praise and the prospect of promotion in order to overcome Rick’s moral qualms about their actions. Bloom starts a relationship with Nina, but this is entirely premised on the value of the footage he is able to collect and the possibility he might take it to another station.

It is a tribute to the screen presence and acting skills of Gyllenhaal, as well as to Gilroy’s excellent screenplay, that the audience (this viewer, at least) is able to maintain interest in a character as unsympathetic as Bloom. One of the characteristics of psychopaths, of course, is that they are often charming. Gyllenhaal captures this in the exchanges where, with a half-smile on his face and burning intensity in his eyes, he lavishes praise and flattery on others. I would not be surprised to see Gyllenhaal in the shortlist for the Oscars. Rene Russo (married to writer/director Dan Gilroy) also turns in a good performance as Nina, who by turns seems repelled and attracted by Bloom’s usurping of her power in both their personal and professional relationships. Riz Ahmed does a splendid job of portraying the plight of Rick, who has been taken off the streets by Bloom, but who could end up back there at any moment. He knows that what they are doing is wrong, but is desperate not to be homeless again. Rick is more dependent on Bloom than anyone else, but he is also the only person to show any moral qualms. Despite the various bullshit motivational speeches that Bloom makes, Rick’s liquid eyes constantly alternate between hope and fear. I wouldn’t mind betting that Ahmed could find himself in the Oscar stakes for best supporting actor.

In one sense, Dan Gilroy is treading similar ground to films like Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street. However, whereas those films placed considerable emphasis on the lifestyle excess that accompanies professional success, Nightcrawler is a much more ascetic affair. Bloom is a loner, who continues to live in a modest apartment even as his success spirals. His sole motivation is to be good at what he does and to climb the ladders of power. Other people are there to be used in whatever way will help achieve his goals. Unlike, say, the character of Bud Fox in Wall Street, there is absolutely no capacity for empathy or redemption. The consequences of this behaviour are shown to chilling effect.

I was also impressed by the musical soundtrack to the film. This is very unobtrusive, but all the more effective for it in a less-is-more kind of way. There are many sequences where there is no background music, but then when it appears it comes in fairly quietly and then builds, so that an atmosphere is created almost without you noticing the music.

Rating: 10/10

Correction: In an earlier version I wrote “aesthetic”, when I meant to say “ascetic”.

tom-at-the-farm (1)

Canada / France 2013

Director: Xavier Dolan

Screenplay: Xavier Dolan / Michel Marc Bouchard. Based on the play by Michel Marc Bouchard.


Written and directed by Xavier Dolan, who also plays the lead role, this is a psychological thriller of a superior kind. Tom, who lives in Montreal, is distraught over the death of his boyfriend, Guillaume. He drives out to the countryside to stay with Guillaume’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), prior to attending the funeral. Agathe doesn’t realise that Tom was more than just a friend of Guillaume’s and is expecting a girlfriend to turn up. Whilst at the house, and later at the funeral, Tom is bullied by Guillaume’s brother Francis (Pierre Yves-Cardinal), who tells him to make up a story in front of Agathe about a girl called Sarah, who was a co-worker of Guillaume. Tom is to pretend that Sarah was Guillaume’s girlfriend, and is to pass on a message from Sarah to Agathe.

On the way back from the funeral Tom tries to make his escape, driving away from the farmhouse whilst cursing Guillaume’s “redneck” brother. But a way down the road he stops and then turns back. We think perhaps he is concerned about Agathe or needs his luggage, but in fact he is drawn to the dark and dangerous figure of Francis. Before long Tom is working on the farm, but increasingly bruised from the attentions of the sociopathic loner Francis, who has secrets of his own (Francis’s outsider status is emphasised at one point by his wearing a jacket with the American flag and “USA” depicted on it – something that no Canadian I have ever known would ever do).

To some degree Tom at the Farm has a thematic similarity to Stranger by the Lake, released in the same year. That film was described by some critics as Hitchcockian, a comparison that I must confess escaped me entirely. It was also notable for its fairly explicit depiction of gay male sexual activity. There are no such displays of sexuality in Tom at the Farm, which is closer to being a thriller that just happens to have a gay man as its lead character (although his sexuality is not irrelevant to the story). Moreover, this is a film that I think can justifiably be called Hitchcockian, what with its farmhouse setting, a chase scene in a cornfield, its dark secrets and motivations, and even a couple of flashes of black humour. From a four-time director who was just 24 when Tom at the Farm was released, this is a major achievement.

Rating: 10/10

ImageBilled as a thriller, I found Stranger by the Lake to be more frustrating than thrilling, though I will admit the film did succeed in conveying an air of mystery. The story begins with the arrival of Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) at an idyllic beach by a lake, populated entirely by gay men. These men sunbathe naked, stroll, cast glances at each other, and occasionally wander off into the neighbouring woods to seek sexual encounters (or to watch them). Franck’s attention is captured by Michel (Christophe Paou), a handsome Tom Selleck lookalike, but he is unable to act on his attraction because Michel already has a partner, Pascal (François-Renaud Labarthe). Therefore, Franck swims a way along the coast where he meets Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), an overweight middle-aged man, with whom he strikes up a non-sexual friendship. Henri is somewhat depressed in the wake of a break-up with his wife and, whilst he does not consider himself gay, reveals that he had previously had an enjoyable relationship with a man.

In the evening, when most people have left the beach, Franck waits behind in the woods where he watches Michel and Pascal out in the lake. There is a lot of splashing and indistinguishable shouting, and eventually Franck sees Michel push Pascal below the water and hold him there. Pascal does not resurface and Michel swims back to the beach, where he gathers up his things and leaves.

The next day Franck joins Michel on the beach. Michel tells him that he and Pascal were never a serious relationship, and that they are no longer together. The two of them go into the woods and make love.

As time passes, Franck continues to talk to Henri each day until the point when Michel arrives. But the day comes when Pascal’s body is washed up further along the shore. Many of the regulars stop coming to the beach, but Franck and Michel continue to meet there despite being questioned at intervals by a police inspector (Jérȏme Chappatte). Initially, Franck does not tell the inspector what he saw but what will happen when his relationship with Michel starts to cool?

Stranger by the Lake is one of those films that seems to be operating at the level of metaphor as much as surface story. The metaphor we are presented with is the nature of risk. We learn that Franck prefers not to use condoms during his sexual encounters and, most obviously, he approaches Michel for a relationship even though he knows him to have killed his previous boyfriend. The two of them continue to use the beach even though this necessarily brings them under suspicion from the police inspector.

However, I felt the film needed both stronger characterisation and a stronger plot to actually make the metaphor work. Franck is the central character, yet we are never given any reason to sympathise or identify with him. This is especially the case when he witnesses Michel murder Pascal. Surely any reasonable person would have reported this to the police, rather than seek a relationship with the killer? Indeed, the one character that I found any sympathy for was Henri, because he is the one person that we actually learn anything about. It is hard to comment on the plot without giving the ending away, but for me the story didn’t go anywhere. Perhaps director Alain Guiraudie aimed to create atmosphere more than story. Perhaps the things I have identified as weaknesses were meant to be some sort of commentary on the practice of cruising for uncomplicated gay sex (a world I know nothing about, but which you presume the director does). For me, though, it was all rather unsatisfactory.

The film is certainly not for the easily shocked, as there is not just a lot of male nudity but also a fair bit of gay sex. Most of this simply involves entwined bodies, but there are a couple of highly explicit moments. Many commentators have praised the film for depicting something that is normally shied away from, and maybe this is part of the reason the film has mostly been favourably reviewed. However, with such a slender plot I did wonder if the director was simply seeking an excuse to present gay sexual activity to a mainstream audience.

Rating: 5/10