Directed by: Dan Gilroy. This one didn’t really jump out at me when it was in theatres, but it seemed like a half decent movie with the possibility of being a fantastic movie, and at any rate, a great showcase of Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting. Overall, I think I was half right: it was definitely a showcase of Jake’s acting, it was overall a pretty decent movie, but definitely not fantastic—if anything, it was kind of middling. This film offers another great case study of unlikable protagonists in film and provides great fodder for the debate about how “likeable” a film’s characters have to be in order for the audience to “identify” with them, and the extent to which that identification is necessary for an enjoyment of the film. This is interesting to me because, across film history, and in my own list of enjoyable movies in recent years, there are more than a few examples of fantastic films with really interesting character arcs and really novel theses on contemporary culture and politics, etc, who are populated partly (or exclusively) with repulsive, unlikeable, or simply idiotic characters. Off the top of my head—Citizen Kane, a lot of crime/gangster movies, the majority of Kubrick’s work, the divisive There Will Be Blood, and almost every major television protagonist including The Sopranos, Mad Men, and House of Cards. The thing with most of those examples, of course, is that there is something about those protagonists that most viewers can latch onto, some personal quirk which tells you that even though you despise what this person does, you like to watch them do it. This movie goes one step further, showing us morally reprehensible characters whose despicable behaviour isn’t particularly satisfying to watch, who in fact make us uncomfortable when we watch them. In this, the film is definitely trying to run over Taxi Driver territory, and in this demented cameraman Lou Bloom, it’s trying to give us a Travis Bickle for the 21st century. The film is unabashed in its desire to repel us away from Lou, showing Lou attacking and possibly killing a security guard for a small amount of scrap metal money within the first 5 minutes of screen time. Within a few more minutes, the dialogue establishes Lou’s personality—awkward, formal, calculated, stunted, and eerily devoid of genuine human emotion. Lou is, at worst, a clinical sociopath/psychopath (I know there’s a difference but I don’t know what), incapable of feeling human emotions; at best, he’s a fucking creep. There’s something chronically repulsive and uncomfortable about this character in a way that makes the heartless but mesmerizing Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood, or the unscrupulous but irresistibly charming Frank Underwood of House of Cards seem utterly sympathetic and easy to watch by comparison. The other main characters in this movie don’t provide the necessary balance either: Rene Russo (in the best role I’ve seen her in) as the jaded, amoral news anchor is definitely more sympathetic than Lou, but that ain’t saying much; the dopey sidekick (played perfectly by a Brit, Riz Ahmed) is so dumb, you can’t identify with him even though you feel sorry for him; and the only thing going for the older slimy cameraman (Bill Paxton) is that, again, he’s more likeable than Lou: that is, he’s not literally a fucking sociopath. And of course, the whole point of all this is to create a damning indictment of the institution of American network news for its sensationalism and bloodlust. The film is trying to show how that institution benefits the corrupt and leaves the innocent as its casualties.
My problem with the movie was that it felt too exaggerated and didactic to be really effective. Again, having established within 5 minutes that this protagonist is utterly corrupt, utterly void of human feeling and emotion, there was nothing much for the film to “reveal” in itself. The world of bloodlust news coverage was, to me, far too hyperbolic to be believable. Maybe it’s different in the States, but in my neck of the woods, that kind of blood-and-guts detail is simply not shown, and I’ve never seen it on American channels either. Even if the film’s depiction of graphic violence on network news is 100% accurate, that’s only the “what”, not the “so what.” So network news is too violent and rewards soulless people for capitalizing on human tragedy. So what? They’re all really bad guys—the end? The film obviously wants us to draw the conclusion that this is a systemic problem, in which we are all complicit, etc, but it doesn’t really show us that. In not showing any consumers of this tragedy, only the producers, the film, in my opinion, leaves too wide a gap in which the average, unthinking viewer can detach themselves from what they see and stand in judgment on those “bad guys” on screen, without any critical self-reflection whatsoever. And, to be fair, this is a complete replication of the criticism of Taxi Driver, whose dual meanings are now textbook film shit. (And if you’re like me, then it’s terrifying to imagine that some people actually saw that movie and thought that Travis Bickle was a good guy fighting bad guys, but there you go.) But in Taxi Driver, the film spends its entire first half slowly letting us find out for ourselves what a twisted and dysfunctional human being this guy is, so that in the last half, we can condemn his violence and then, immediately after, condemn our own society for praising his violence. Taxi Driver had a pretty coherent and revelatory thesis about American attitudes to gun violence and the complexities of modern life. In the case of this movie, even the basic thesis is weaker and less revelatory: the news media is a sensational and soulless institution? Network already showed us that decades ago, and with far more subversive flair. The only real nugget of significance that would be hidden in here somewhere is some indication that we are complicit in this violence, some character dynamic exploring the relationship between the producers and consumers, but again, the film only focuses on the individuals involved in the supply, leaving the question of demand hanging somewhere in the shadows for us to figure out on our own (or to go on ignoring because we’re focusing on how deplorable Lou is). The movie is two hours of Lou’s rottenness progressing further, along with his commensurate increase in success with the TV network, revealing its rottenness by association. And the film just goes on and on like that. The subplot with cops grilling him about his invasion of the crime scene, the threat of him being caught, of some reckoning between him and the institution, amounts to nothing, and he’s allowed to drive off into the sunset as a successful entrepreneur. This is either a super intelligent movie that I’m too dumb to get, and whose pearls of greatness will be embarrassingly revealed to me in coming years, or it’s just as I suspect, and it’s a dumb movie masquerading as a deep movie, playing around with interesting subject matter, but not having anything to say about any of it.