Just how important is it to know everything about a gory news story? How much do we want to know about the process that gets that information? And just how far would we go in the same circumstances?
Long time scriptwriter and first time director Dan Gilroy has exploded onto the Hollywood scene with his astonishing take on the media’s hunger for the most intimate details and the need to generate social discussion. His dark and disturbing LA thriller takes us on a morally uncomfortable but slickly presented wild ride, challenges us to keep up while also introducing one of the greatest of modern villains.
In a performance ignored by the Academy (shame on you!) but to be celebrated in the decades to follow, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Leo Bloom, a social outcast struggling to get a foot on the employment ladder. Stealing wire from a construction site before attacking the inquisitive security guard to escape, it’s clear that Bloom’s ethics are dubious. Trying to sell the wire to another construction site, Bloom’s ambition is thwarted by a superior logic and he has to settle for a value far below his expectation. His persistence, and negotiating skills, whilst raw, are clearly in evidence.
Driving away, he notices a car crash and how the drama of a woman heroically being pulled from a burning car is captured by freelance cameramen. Despite being rudely dismissed by the two-man crew, Bloom sees the opportunity the industry provides and decides to grab it, or rather film it, with both hands. His negotiating and planning skills now stronger, he is able to get a camera, radio scanner and even a young desperate assistant Rick Carey (Riz Ahmed). Despite early setbacks, the two are able to work together and capture some news-worthy footage. When trying to sell the images on to the local TV station, Bloom meets the equally ruthless morning news director Nina Romina (an impressive Rene Russo). Romina’s philosophy is embodied by the “If it bleeds, it leads” and “I don’t care if it’s moral, I care if its legal”.
Nominated for Best Original Screenplay (and nothing else, tut tut) at the upcoming Oscars, this is a story that has the flair, adrenalin and thought-provoking drama that makes it a certainty to be a cult classic. Gyllenhaal’s performance is a highlight in an already impressive career, capturing the chilling, callous and perversely charming Bloom that challenges you not to admire him even as he makes your blood run cold. Nowhere is this more evident than in arguably the film’s most fascinating scene: keen to seduce Romano and improve his professional standing, Bloom outlines his reasons, foreseeing every argument the executive could come up to prevent it. Set in a quiet, low-key restaurant, it has more of a feel of a high stakes poker game and marks a noticeable power shift in their relationship.
With the same producers as 2011’s Drive, Gilroy’s film has parallels, giving us a tour of a different side of LA, led by a loner with the skills needed to survive in a ruthless and dangerous industry. Unlike Drive’s unnamed stunt and getaway driver (Ryan Gosling), Bloom is more shrewd and ambitious more than mysterious and brooding, helped by Gyllenhaal’s stunning performance that helps bring out the comedy in the film. Bloom’s repeating of business rules when discussing the work environment with Carey are particular highlights. But Gyllenhaal’s layered portrayal never lets us forget the moral emptiness beneath the outer surfaces. None more so than when he tells Carey: “What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?”
This year’s Oscars may be largely dominated by true stories of inspiring, intense or provocative figures, but there should always be space for an imaginative and original film. As the local network in the film shows, sometimes the audience doesn’t know itself what it really wants.