I spend a lot of time at the cinema. I really enjoy the pastime, so even when I see a lot of mediocre movies, I can find things to enjoy about them. And then the film fest comes along, and in one day I can see two of the most exciting films I’ve seen all year, and it’s as if I’ve had my ears pinned back. It’s so refreshing. And what’s even more surprising is both movies are by first time feature filmmakers.
Friday night I wandered down to Park Lane Cinema 8 to see Nightcrawler, and encountered the cast and crew of Heartbeat exiting one of the three sold-out screenings for that film. They were all glowing. You might even say post-orgasmic. I think the crowd gave them a whole lot of love.
Nightcrawler is a great night-in-LA movie, the best I’ve seen since Drive. You wouldn’t think that would be a genre unto itself, especially given how many movies are made in the city, but it kind of is. Usually they’re thrillers, beautifully shot to evoke those Los Angeles iconic locales. They include Kiss Me Deadly, Into The Night and Collateral.
This one comes from screenwriter Dan Gilroy (Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy), delivering a darkly funny satire on paparazzi. A lean, creepy and hollow-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal is Louis Bloom, one of LA’s nocturnal denizens who apparently never needs sleep.
Living in an unremarkable box of an apartment, he spends a lot of time on the internet, waters his plant, and goes out in the evenings. He’s an interesting guy—a quick learner, by his own estimation, but completely amoral, prepared to do anything to get ahead, including assault and thievery. A chance run-in with Bill Paxton’s independent video journalist (another in Paxton’s impressive catalogue of assholes) gives Lou the idea to be a ambulance-chasing parasite, getting footage of crime scenes and accidents to sell to the morning TV news. At a station particularly desperate for ratings he meets producer Nina (Rene Russo, great to see her again in a meaty role), who helps enable his ballsy behaviour. Before long Lou is making some serious cash, upgrading his crappy hatchback to a Dodge Challenger and hiring an assistant (Riz Ahmed). And Lou’s ambition doesn’t stop at finding news—before long he’s making it.
It’s a capably shot and edited movie, but it’s Gyllenhaal who compels our attention. With this and Enemy from earlier this year, he’s been choosing stronger and more extreme roles, and it suits him—though I have to admit, I wasn’t much of a fan of his Detective Loki in Prisoners, which showed at last year’s AFF.
While some of the plotting in Nightcrawler feels a bit implausible, and some may argue the film is in danger of being capsized by a few hoary devices —there’s even a montage to suggest the passage of time—I thoroughly enjoyed it. Gilroy drives it with such enthusiasm, building to a fantastic action and chase sequence in the third act.
Friday afternoon was The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. For those who don’t know, this is one of the fall’s more interesting projects. This film will be released in different versions: Him, Her, and Them.
Ned Benson’s story of two New Yorkers’ dissolving relationship after a personal tragedy rocks their lives, Him and Her were shown together at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013. Each film tells the tale from the perspective of the man and woman in the relationship, respectively. At more than three hours, I have it on good authority that the Her portion was more interesting than the Him. None the less, what an interesting idea, eh?
And I’ve heard that when Weinstein Company agreed to distribute it, they insisted it be cut together as a single film. And that’s what I saw today, a two-hour drama about people managing loss in very different ways. If I didn’t know that backstory I’d have had no idea it was two individual movies. I was surprised not to see the seams. That said, I liked the amalgam enough that when the Him and Her are released (hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to see them here in Halifax), I’ll check out those versions, too.
Jessica Chastain—luminous and compelling as always—is Elle, whose parents named her after the Beatles song. James McAvoy is Connor, a restaurateur. We find this married couple just as Elle has survived a suicide attempt, and following that she vanishes from her husband’s life, seeming to blame him for her grief—we later find out there’s real reason for all the sorrow.
In that is the relationship drama, pieced together in a series of scenes, many feeling unconnected but rooted by amazing performances by the leads and most of the support. Yes, it’s about how life can be tragic and unexpected, and how some relationships simply can’t survive such events. It’s also about being a parent, and the inarticulate chasms between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. It’s how generations before managed their challenges and how we’re doing right now.
And no, it doesn’t all work. There are some heavy-handed framings, making sure to include scissors and knives on the walls, offering inscrutable thematic import. There are a bunch of scenes stuffed with unlikely philosophical musings—just because characters identify a certain burst of dialogue as academic and expositional doesn’t alleviate the weight of those words. They aren’t deflated. There’s Isabelle Hupert as a walking cliché of an unhappy French mother, a glass of wine in her hand in almost every scene, morning, noon or night. And then there’s the title and the name, and the clumsily articulated Beatles connection, which doesn’t do much for the story but draw attention to itself.
But the scenes that do work, and of them there are many, make the film a pleasure to sit through. Supporting roles from Ciarán Hinds, Bill Hader, William Hurt, and especially Viola Davis, go far to smooth out the rough spots. I’m impressed by the ambition on display, and that whether this is better as one film or split into two, there’s a lot of good stuff going on here.
While McAvoy is typically good, it’s Chastain who carries the film across her clavicles and in the set of her jaw. She’s the wounded heart in this thing, perhaps opaque to herself, but increasingly real and whole to us.