Of Monsters and Men: “Birdman,” “Whiplash,” “Nightcrawler”

Birdman

Movies don’t come out in a vacuum. Three of this fall’s most talked-about movies follow men as they struggle to balance professional success and occupational fulfillment with personal relationships and emotional connections. In all three stories, the main characters fall victim to the grim realities of the businesses in which they embed themselves. Nightcrawler, Birdman and Whiplash will likely be among this year’s crop of Oscar nominees. Below, my thoughts on these movies and the effect of thinking about them in tandem.


Nightcrawler

Lou Bloom, the main character in writer-director Dan Gilroy’s debut feature Nightcrawler, is a man of principle. Played with a healthy dollop of relish by Jake Gyllenhaal, Lou operates by a strict code of ethics that dictate his interpersonal behavior, career ambitions and physical appearance. That code of ethics rarely overlaps with convention. And as a result, he quickly emerges as one of the cinematic year’s most terrifying creations.

Nightcrawler thrives on Lou Bloom’s inscrutability. The movie opens with a sequence in which Lou robs a construction site. On the way home, he stops on the side of the road to watch the aftermath of a car accident unfold. A freelance video news crew (led by Bill Paxton, who’s having quite a year) streaks by to capture grisly shots of the accident for the perverse enjoyment of that evening’s local news audience, and Lou’s latest idea is born. He spends the rest of the movie emulating and then overthrowing that video news crew, all in pursuit of a healthy career. Along the way, he butts heads with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the director of the Los Angeles area’s least-watched broadcast news station.

Jake Gyllenhaal channels all of the eccentricities he’s been cultivating over the past ten years of his oddball Hollywood career into this role, which requires both boundless charisma and deep-seated menace. With his mannered speech patterns and absurd haircuts, each greasier and more disturbing than the last, Lou Bloom seems inspired in part by Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. The movie is as much a comedy as it is a thriller, though. The contrast between Lou’s professional competence and personal ineptitude is hilarious right up until the point that it’s disturbing.

Gilroy focuses his satirical eye on the local news business, but his more potent critique comes whenever Lou Bloom cites an intern manual or career advice web site as if it were scripture. Lou represents the dark side of American ambition. Crucially, we almost never see him during the day. The movie’s title is apt – Lou Bloom comes out when the innocents have gone to bed, right after they switch off the local news. He preys on the naivete of the viewing audience to feed his pursuit of self-actualization. It would be admirable if it weren’t at everyone else’s expense.

***

Birdman

While Lou Bloom seems fully aware of the effect his actions have on the people around him, Riggan Thomson’s fatal flaw is his lack of peripheral vision. Riggan, the star of the actual film Birdman and the fictional superhero franchise of the same name, sees his career only as a series of moves and counter-moves, but he fails to take account into the shifting loyalties of the public who once supported him, and the close relations who still waver.

Birdman eats style for breakfast. The movie is gorgeously shot (by unimpeachable cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki) to look like one fluid take. It’s filled with beautiful performances that work on several levels, sometimes simultaneously. Like a proverbial one-night stand, it looks great, feels great and says little.

Whereas Nightcrawler traces the potential for male depravity to its logical endpoint, Birdman starts with a man on the precipice of that transformation and watches as he tries to climb out of it. In a touch of meta casting, Michael Keaton plays Riggan, once the star of the popular Birdman movies in the 90s, now a burnout trying to rekindle his idling career with a writing, directing and acting debut on Broadway. The roving camera tracks the performance through previews and right up to opening night. Riggan deals with problems both personal and professional, internal and external. He clashes with his cast, bickers with his attorney, squabbles with his young girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough), reminisces with his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and wrestles with his inner demons, which include Birdman himself, manifest as a growling caricature of Christian Bale in the Batman movies.

As Riggan loses his grip on reality, the movie increasingly feels like a familiar tale of male vanity dressed up as something more. Meanwhile, characters on the periphery seem to offer more intriguing narrative directions, only to succumb to the movie’s single-minded focus on Riggan by the end. Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), freshly returned from rehab, hangs out on the set, seeing her father’s problems clearly even as he muddles through them. She also flirts and banters amusingly with Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), perhaps the movie’s most compelling and flawed character. Shiner is an exaggerated version of the persona Norton has cultivated in Hollywood – fiercely protective of his artistic creations, undeniably skilled at his craft, arrogant and abrasive to a fault. But he brings the best out in his fellow actors onstage, only to bring out their worst backstage. Like Sam, Mike’s arc loses momentum as Riggan takes over in the last half hour, a shame given the vitality of Norton’s performance and the sparkle of his dialogue.

Also sparkling is that cinematography, which can’t help but recall last year’s Gravity, also Lubezki’s handiwork. This stylistic choice doesn’t give the viewer time to pause and reflect. Every time the action stops in one room, the camera whips over to another room, or across the hall. This device rises above mere distraction, though. It reveals the flimsiness of Riggan’s master plan and the shallowness of his profession. Even as Birdman adopts a pretty uncontroversial stance on the state of superhero movie culture and American popular art in general, it does so with such panache that the hollowness of the artifice reveals itself only hours later.  Like Riggan’s Hollywood career, Birdman is a shapely balloon that gradually loses air.

***

Whiplash

Whiplash opens with an escalating drumbeat so insistent that I felt my heart race before a frame of footage appeared onscreen. It’s immediately clear that the movie will not romanticize jazz or the men who practice it. Andrew Neyman and Terrence Fletcher are not artists honing their craft, but practitioners executing a plan.

At a tight 90 minutes of ferocious drumming and aggressive teaching, sweaty palms and tossed chairs, the movie might well have been subtitled The Sound and the Fury. The two men at the center of this thrilling drama have much to learn and lose from each other, and writer-director Damien Chazelle’s nimble camera weaves and swerves around them as they engage in a fatalistic game of cat-and-mouse. Neither character emerges with his dignity unscathed. The filmmaker, on the other hand, earns quite a bit from this auspicious second feature.

Miles Teller brings gruffness and resolve to the role of Andrew, an outcast percussion student at one of New York’s most prestigious conservatory schools. (Think Juilliard without the copyright infringement.) One day, Andrew sits practicing drums alone when he gets a visit from the brusque conductor Fletcher, who immediately notices a spark in Andrew that other students lack. It’s not long before Andrew is sitting in Fletcher’s classroom, bearing the brunt of Fletcher’s aggressive teaching style.

Fletcher isn’t just a stern instructor who gets results. He’s a plain old mean man, with a bare head and muscles that seem locked in a perpetual state of flex. He’s not mean to teach his students a lesson, but because he believes the only way to elicit art is to wrestle it mercilessly from the hands of the artists. And Andrew falls under his spell. He abandons the girl he’s been casually dating so he can focus on his technique, and he becomes increasingly unsympathetic to his fellow students and even his doting family members. Fletcher infects Andrew like a virus, and it’s only at the movie’s conclusion that his professorial madness bears fruit. But at what cost?

Whiplash doesn’t answer that question. Its climactic final sequence is ambiguous but breathtaking, with dazzling editing that places drumming on par with an Olympic sport and a diet regimen all in one. Whereas Nightcrawler and Birdman come a little too close to having their cake and eating it too, Whiplash leaves a few pieces of cake and lets you choose whether or not to take a bite. Andrew loses something in the process of becoming Fletcher. If the movie has an answer to the question of whether Andrew’s success justifies the sacrifice, it’s not telling. The answer lies in the drumbeat.

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