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CULTURE ARTICLE

Under The Hood: 'Nightcrawler' and The Power of Antiheroes

Dan Gilroy's debut feature provides an object-lesson in how unlikable characters can lead to great viewing.

Something that filmmakers are certain to hear at one point or another - in screenwriting-advice books (be careful with those!), at film school, in meetings with producers and other creatives - is that, in order for a film to be successful, its protagonist has to be "likable", whatever that means. Of course, this couldn't be further from the truth. Classics like Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, and Network—among many, many others—illustrate that a film's protagonist can engage in appalling and repulsive behavior without alienating the audience. 

What's crucial to developing a strong antihero is making sure that that antihero has a strong drive, a palpable purpose, something that keeps their motor running.

On the contrary, this is often exactly what brings an audience in to an antihero-led film, if the storytelling is executed correctly. Dan Gilroy's superb directorial debut Nightcrawler, which was released this past Friday, is a stellar example. Certainly indebted to Network (as well as Ace In The Hole and A Face In The Crowd, though the chief influence feels like the novel 'What Makes Sammy Run?,' which, like A Face In The Crowd, was written by Budd Schulberg), Nightcrawler features Jake Gyllenhaal (in an unforgettable performance) as Louis Bloom, a freelance videographer who shoots crime-scene footage for LA's local news stations. Bloom is unlikable from the start - the film's opening scene features him decking a security guard just trying to do his job, and stealing his watch, to boot - but always incredibly watchable. Why?

First of all, Gyllenhaal's performance cannot be understated in its importance. In its jolting electricity, its wiry, almost subhuman delivery, Gyllenhaal manages to channel all of Bloom's quirks, eccentricities and failings—and strengths—in vivid detail, detail so vivid the audience can't help but stay engaged in his story. But this is a screenwriting column! So we should consider what, in the writing stage, can be done to ensure that the story of a character such as Bloom manages to engage, despite the character's nastiness. 

Identifying with reprehensible characters, without fear or guilt, is something that makes filmgoing such a pleasurable activity. 

What's crucial to developing a strong antihero, I believe, is making sure that that antihero has a strong drive, a palpable purpose, something that keeps their motor running. Not all film protagonists need to have such a quality, but not all protagonists can be extremely off-putting to the audience's engagement. By providing the antihero with a strong need, a desire, a drive, the audience is forced to share some of the character's desire, regardless of how twisted it may be. This drive is often the point in which the audience connects to the antihero, since all of us understand what it's like to feel a drive, to want something badly. In Bloom's case, what he wants is simply money, a decent job—in the film's opening he's selling scrap metal for money. Since we all can identify with needing money, Bloom is rendered relatable to us from the start. The actions that he then takes to get that money, while actions that most individuals would not choose to take, are nevertheless rendered understandable—and so a twisted logic to his behavior is made apparent to the audience. This ability to understand an antihero—without necessarily agreeing with their choices—is what makes watching movies about them so pleasurable. We're given the opportunity to identify, to some degree, with a character whose actions, in real life, we would otherwise find reprehensible—and identifying with reprehensible characters, without fear or guilt, is something that makes filmgoing such a pleasurable activity. 

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John Cassavetes' SHADOWS (1959) — Peep THE TEN COMMANDMENTS on the marquee in the background
Ingrid Jungermann (@Ingrid_ETC), writer and director of the superb, #Tribeca2016 Best Screenplay-winning comedy WOMEN WHO KILL, has been nominated for the @Acura Someone to Watch Award at this Saturday’s @FilmIndependent #SpiritAwards. Now, will somebody please pick up this ferociously funny gem? 🔪
“Her performance requires us to pay a great deal of attention to the detail and implication laid out across her expressive face, but the final result is a nothing less than a vigorously full-bodied creation.” In an ideal world, the amazing Lily Gladstone would have been an Oscar contender for her revelatory, @FilmIndependent-nominated performance in Kelly Reichardt’s exceptional drama CERTAIN WOMEN. Find out why. Link in bio.
As we continue our #BlackHistoryMonth exploration of Tribeca selections helmed by black directors, it's time to turn our attention to a daring and genuinely monumental exercise that was ignored upon its first bow but remains radical and required viewing for anyone who cares about the past, present, and future of movies. In 2005, writer, director, documentarian, and film movement leader William Greaves debuted SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE TWO AND A HALF, in which the late indie pioneer, with the help of invaluable executive producers Steve Buscemi and Steven Soderbergh, revisited and reconceived his 1968 avant-garde landmark, a cult classic and film school staple that acerbically captured the making of a film within a film within a film. Greaves' update of his experimental, docu-fictional meditation on the warped and knotty act of moviemaking only intensifies this fluid work's status as a bona fide cinematic revolution unto itself.
Like Haile Gerima's HARVEST: 3,000 YEARS, today's #BlackHistoryMonth selection highlights another retrospective screening from a past Tribeca Film Festival. From 1989, Charles Lane's Sidewalk Stories is a silent masterpiece that updates Charlie Chaplin's soulful slapstick for modern times but imparts a heartrending worldview all its own. It tells the story of a homeless New York artist who assumes parental responsibilities for the young daughter of a murdered man, finding humor and humanity in every corner of the city. If you have yet to see this independent gem, seek it out immediately.

@Tribeca

Ingrid Jungermann (@Ingrid_ETC), writer and director of the superb, #Tribeca2016 Best Screenplay-winning comedy WOMEN WHO KILL, has been nominated for the @Acura Someone to Watch Award at this Saturday’s @FilmIndependent #SpiritAwards. Now, will somebody please pick up this ferociously funny gem? 🔪

@tribeca

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