We mostly see two types of horror films these days. There's the "ironic horror" scene, which acknowledges the audience's awareness of horror cliches and plays on their expectations in a cheeky way. Even if they occasionally go for genuine scares, the filmmakers keep reminding you that they're in on the joke. CABIN IN THE WOODS, the SCREAMs, HOUSEBOUND, THE EDITOR, and any movie where a black character jokes that he's gonna die first all fall into this category.
There's nothing even remotely ironic about Ivan Kavanagh's THE CANAL, a dead-serious Irish scarer that's a haunted house movie, a slasher, and a psychological horror flick all at the same time.
As we open, David (Rupert Evans), his wife Alice, and son Billy are moving into their new Dublin home nearby an ominous-looking canal. A few years later, David is working as a film archivist, Alice is even more successful with her corporate gig, and Billy is old enough to walk and talk on their own. One day, David sees a reel of film at work containing evidence that, a century back, a man murdered his wife and child in the very house he and his family live in. Already perturbed, David starts getting more on edge when he starts suspecting his wife of sleeping with a handsome, younger client. He follows her one night and catches the two in flagrante elicto, but he chickens out of a confrontation, passing out in a public restroom by the canal on the way home. When he comes to, he's told his wife never came home the previous night and that her lover has an airtight alibi. Though no evidence points in his direction, David knows that he is the most likely suspect, and he digs into the history of his home and the murders that transpired there in an attempt to figure out what happened and who (or what) is responsible.
There's an intense, slow-burn sense of dread all over this flick, and the atmosphere is thick and pours right off the screen. From the first moment David sees his wife doing the nasty with another man all the way to the end credits, the tension and mood never let up, putting you in David's unsettled, freaked out shoes the whole way through. Part of that unsettling vibe is due to the fact that the film never settles into one realm of horror; just when we're locked into the investigation into Alice's disappearance, David starts hearing stuff around the house. When David starts trying to set traps to find out if there are any ghosts in the house to the confusion of those around him, we switch into domestic drama mode as we wonder whether the authorities will snatch Billy away from his father. THE CANAL never lets you get comfortable with where you think it's going, and that unpredictable tenacity gives his movie a lot of energy, confidence, and charm.
Rupert Evans is best known for playing the New Jack rookie in the first HELLBOY, but I didn't even recognize him here. Even before anything goes down, David's a skittish, anxious guy, diligently doing his 9-5 and retreating from his suspicions about his wife's extra-curricular activities. When he actually catches Alice in the act, there's a great moment where he sees a hammer on a table and the entire audience yells "DO IT!" before he succumbs to logic and peaces the hell out of there. If it weren't for Evans' performance, we'd turn on David much sooner than we do instead of sympathizing with him through the misery that befalls him. There's also a nice child performance from Calum Heath as young Billy, and a sympathetic supporting turn from Antonia Campbell-Hughes as David's boss. Seriously, you'll wish you had a boss as open and understanding as Ms. Campbell-Hughes' character..
There are a few moments where CGI shadows kill the momentum of the scares, and the ending becomes painfully obvious fairly early on, but I was still creeped out and thoroughly entertained by this flick. Ivan Kavanagh creates a broody atmosphere of out of the thick, Irish fog, a world of unsatisfying routine, unrequited affection, and unreliable loved ones, not to mention ghosts and murder. This is a horror film that doesn't change the game or anything, but does enough rejiggering of old ideas and formulas that it manages to entrance and, at times, truly frighten.
I'm gonna try not to do two things here: reveal too much of the plot of this film, or to soak this in hyperbole about how much I loved it.
Because there's already a good amount of talk out there about NIGHTCRAWLER, and you can bet there's gonna be a hell of a lot more. There's a ton of stuff going on both on screen and in the subtext of this black comedy/satire/character study/L.A. love letter, and I can't wait for you all to see it so the conversations of this film can begin in earnest. Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllenhaal have created a take on the American Dream that is spot-on, darkly hilarious, and unstoppably provocative.
I won't go heavy into plot details, but basically, this is a first-person account of Gyllenhaal's Louis Bloom and his foray into the world of freelance news reporting. The film doesn't give us much in the way of backstory, but right off the bat, we know Bloom's not the most upstanding character when he beats up a security guard for a few hundred bucks worth of scrap metal. He's an odd lad, and sort of creepy, but is frighteningly resourceful and quite dedicated to making something of himself: as he says in the movie (and the trailer), "If you wanna win the lottery, you gotta make the money to buy a ticket." When he happens upon a cameraman (Bill Paxton) desperately stealing shots of a car crash for the nightly news, he sees a career opportunity. He enlists a borderline-homeless assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed), gets his own camera and police scanner, cruising around getting footage of each night's crimes-du-jour. He has a detached, amoral sensibility that helps him in his efforts, and he's not above manipulating a crime scene for a better shot. He's also got a weird, self-help-book-augmented business acumen, and he quickly creates a lucrative exclusivity deal with a local news editor (Rene Russo).
That's just the setup; where it goes from there allows Gilroy and Gyllenhaal to plump the depths of this hilariously mannered yet totally believable character while exposing the dark fringes of Los Angeles and the institutions that run off of the city's pulse. Gilroy admitted in the post-film Q & A that when he decided to do a movie about the world of freelance crime journalism, his first instinct was to do it as a straight-forward thriller. Thankfully, he figured out that the best way to portray it was through the eyes of someone who would not be emotionally perturbed by what he'd see or the moral ambiguity of the position, and Louis Bloom is just that. He is a product of the modern age, a sociopath who was able to infer the ins and outs of contemporary society while sitting alone on his computer. If he has a mental deficiency or some sort of imbalance, it's certainly not a handicap; his unique personality is ideal for what he's trying to accomplish, and one of the things that keeps the deeply cynical NIGHTCRAWLER so enjoyable is watching Louis continually overcome his obstacles on his way to success. Gyllenhaal is one of those unfortunate actors of his generation that is too-often relegated to standard, boring leading roles, but after seeing this performance, I'm finally onboard with the idea that this guy's got untapped potential.
The supporting cast is small, but perfectly realized. Russo (Gilroy's wife) turns in her best performance in ages (maybe ever) as the pragmatic Nina. At first, we think she's essentially reprising her SHOWTIME role as the confident media producer, but very quickly we see nuances in her character. There's a dinner scene between Nina and Louis that features many long, sustained close-ups on Russo's face, and while she's still beautiful, we see the stress and desperation of the character start to creep through, and it's devastating.
An actor I was unfamiliar with, Riz Ahmed (FOUR LIONS), makes a huge impression as Louis' sidekick, Rick. The guy's apparently British, but he plays a Los Angeles Mexican-American transient exactly like, as Gilroy himself put it, "the kids you see at the bus stop on Ventura". Perennially nervous and desperate for cash, Rick goes serves as a reluctant voice of reason for Louis. He twitches, shakes, and stammers through his role, and it's such a lived-in performance that it's tough to believe that the actor isn't didn't grow up exactly like Rick.
Add Robert Elswit's shockingly gorgeous nighttime shots of Los Angeles, some tension thick enough to cut with a knife, and a small slice of sleaze courtesy of Bill Paxton, and you have what is easily one of my favorite flicks of the year so far. There's brutal satire here, and it's after every last bottlenecking one of us. I've heard comparisons made to TAXI DRIVER and KING OF COMEDY, and that isn't that far off in terms of both tone and quality; while only time will tell whether NIGHTCRAWLER will be mentioned in the same breath as those Scorsese classics, it's certain that the film is as dark, funny, and frighteningly subversive as those brilliant character studies. I can't wait for the conversation to get going on the other things I adore about this movie, like the innumerable quotable lines, the excellent use of the handicam aesthetic, and the wonderful score by James Newton Howard.
Gyllenhaal for Best Actor, y'all.