When is a car movie, not a car movie? The answer is quite simple. When a film has nothing to do with cars, per se, but nonetheless features an amazing vehicle to ogle throughout its running length.
I have reviewed a number of these types of films in the past. From Dusk Till Dawn, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot are among them. I thought we’d revisit the genre of non-car movie car movies this month, in the form of a film I saw just recently, 2014’s Nightcrawler. So, away we go!
Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, and the late Bill Paxton. The film was written and directed by Dan Gilroy, who previously penned the Matt Damon actioner, The Bourne Legacy, distributed in the United States by Open Road Films.
The movie is a dark thriller that tells the story of a small-time thief, Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal). After chancing upon a bad collision on a Los Angeles freeway, Bloom aspires to elevate his station in life by becoming a “stringer.” A stringer is a freelance journalist who sells bloody footage of car accidents, fires, and violent crime-scenes to local news stations.
His unusual determination for success, and desire to beat out his hard-nosed stringer competitors leads him to tamper with crime-scenes. Eventually, Bloom attempts to blackmail a desperate news director, Nina Romina (Russo), into giving him preferential treatment when it comes to purchasing footage.
Lou’s ruthless actions soon see him embroiled in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a pair of home-invaders, who Lou has video-evidence of, committing a murderous crime.
Nightcrawler reminds me in several ways of one of my favorite car movies of the past ten years, Nicolas Winding Refn’s superb film, Drive. Not coincidentally, Drive was produced by the same team of Garrick Dion, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak, and Gary Michael Walters.
Much like Drive, Nightcrawler is essentially an art-house film that dispenses with traditional, studio-style patterns and mores of storytelling. It supplants it with those that require the audience to make their own connections as to character motivations and cause-and-effect loops.
Nightcrawler is set in Los Angeles, and its mise-en-scene depicts the town similarly as a bastion of corruption, crime, greed, and ruthless people who lack any semblance of a moral compass. As in Drive, there are no pure heroes here, including the main protagonist.
In the role of this lead antihero, Gyllenhaal is nothing less than superb. In the beginning, he exudes slime and more than a good dash of sociopathy. He appears gaunt and hollow-eyed (probably the result of the actor losing a large amount of weight for the production), and espousing dialogue that instantly lets the viewer know just what type of man he is.
As the movie proceeds and his character climbs the socio-economic ladder from hood to media-professional, his appearance changes in subtle ways – nice clothes, sharp haircut – but the core of his personality remains squalid and disagreeable.
Rene Russo and Bill Paxton also put in respectable performances. Their characters are no less self-serving and narcissistic as Gyllenhaal’s. Russo’s performance as Nina is especially craven. We watch her use out of context footage of people’s misfortunes to further her agenda of promoting non-existent crime waves, all to boost her newscast’s ratings.
All of this serves as a scathing indictment of today’s media. Lou and his cohorts act in no better a moral fashion than Lou did when he was a thief.
Also top-notch is the film’s cinematography by Robert Elswit, who lenses the city mostly at night, highlighting its bejeweled, illuminated landscape. In stark contrast to the less-than-beautiful characters who inhabit this milieu, the lensing visually captures the notion that Hollywood is all smoke and mirrors, and its denizens all phonies.
For us car nuts, Nightcrawler yields some serious American muscle. As Lou becomes more successful, he ditches his 30-year-old, primer-gray Toyota Tercel junkbox for a gleaming Tor-Red Dodge Challenger. The car is ostensibly supposed to be an SRT8 with the 392ci Hemi V8. However, closer inspection by a Challenger owner and aficionado such as me reveals some Hollywood fakery.
Although it wears 392 badges on its front fenders and an SRT badge on the grille, my eyes tell me the car was probably an R/T with the smaller and less powerful 5.7-liter Hemi. This is evidenced by the R/T style dashboard gauges, the non-SRT alloy wheels, and the fact that the hood stripes, Dodge Ram logo, and black (instead of body color) rear spoiler were never present on SRT8 392 cars.
Nonetheless, the movie’s Challenger is a good-looking and good-sounding car. Luckily for us, it’s put through multiple high-speed chase sequences that are masterfully filmed, especially the one that comprises much of the film’s third act.
Owing to its excellent script, fine directing, stunning photography, and of course that bright red Hemi Challenger, Nightcrawler is one heck of a film. I enjoyed it nearly as much as Drive, and as such, I give it seven-and-a-half out of ten pistons.
Go watch it; I guarantee you’ll like it too. Until next month…