Bill Murray, Jake Gyllenhaal Test the Limits of ‘Antihero’ at the Toronto Film Fest
Somewhere, there is a line between antihero and outright villain – and it’s not a fine line. It’s a broad fuzzy band that shifts from character to character and viewer to viewer, and Hollywood has been messing with it lately, drawing it and erasing it and drawing it again.
On Friday night in Toronto, a couple of first-time directors took distinctively different – but equally successful – swipes at the increasingly popular archetype, with world premiers of Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and St. Vincent, starring Bill Murray, on “Bill Murray Day.”
The high-velocity Los Angeles noir thriller Nightcrawler gives our understanding of “antihero” a disorienting punch in the face with Lou Bloom, a six-exits-past-the-borderline sociopath whose half-baked moral code, naively blunt observations of human nature and dogged work ethic almost make you want to root for this lunatic, played by what was left of Gyllenhaal after a jolting weight-loss binge.
This is not Walter White becoming devilishly self-aware of his true motivations, or even Taxi Driver wacko Travis Bickle, whose twisted desire to “cleanse” the mean streets of New York is rooted in, well – something. No, Gyllenhaal’s Bloom is merely out for himself, single-mindedly chasing an outlet for his focus and ambition – but when he finds it, boy oh boy is he fun to watch in action.
Bloom shows his stripes early, conking out a night watchman to steal scrap metal and swiping the guard’s timepiece for good measure. On his way home from peddling the score, he stumbles upon a crew of nightcrawlers, the freelance cameramen who roam Los Angeles after dark to capture footage of L.A.’s tiny catastrophes, which they then sell to local news stations.
A light goes on – in Bloom’s case, a tiny camcorder light – and a monster is born. He swaps a boosted bike for a police scanner and some crude recording gear, and within a few nights it’s clear that he’s cut out for this, as he’ll do what even seasoned nightcrawlers won’t: cross under police tape, enrage officers without flinching, trespass on private property … even drag a crash victim’s body into the glow of the headlights for a better shot.
It seems there’s nothing Bloom won’t do to claw his way into the business that was perfectly despicable enough before he came along. Maybe with any lesser an actor than Gyllenhaal, or a backdrop less ambition-driven than Los Angeles, Bloom would just be another heartless paparazzi, a scavenger to be reviled, which would make Nightcrawler nothing more than yet another finger in the crowd, wagging at the media.
But here’s the thing: With every one of Bloom’s appalling actions, which ratchet up from scene to scene, the audience at the packed Princess of Wales Theatre was laughing gut-busting, knee-slapping belly laughs. Though that may sound like entirely the wrong reaction for a film about the disgusting forces that feed our disgusting obsession with everyday mayhem, it wasn’t.
It’s exactly the reaction that Gilroy and Gyllenhaal were going for.
Producer Tony Gilroy, Producer Jake Gyllenhaal and Director/Writer Dan Gilroy seen at Open Road Films’ World Premier of ‘Nightcrawler’ at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 5, 2014.
Image: Eric Charbonneau/Associated Press
Herein lies the brilliance of Nightcrawler: It has a critical eye, but it’s not preachy. It’s dark and moody, but never broods. What’s unfolding onscreen is sick and sensational, and yet it delights us – but it neither revels in that delight, nor does it shame us for feeling it.
In that sense, Nightcrawleris a high-wire act — and at its conclusion, Gilroy and Gyllenhaal rip the balance bar out of our hands and give the wire a good, hard shove when Bloom crosses a line that journalism ethics, the law, and a basic sense of humanity firmly assert should not be crossed.
It’s a gone-too-far moment that tests what little sympathy we have left for the protagonist. There’s no doubt that many had given up rooting for Bloom at the moment he decided to join the paparazzi, and his third-act choices probably lose all but the most unhinged among us.
But there is something about his singularity of purpose, the clarity of his vision and his level of dedication that’s hard not to want for ourselves. If you were as driven to do whatever it is you do as Bloom is to beat the competition and get the best possible shot, you’d be a lot further along in your career.
Is Bloom an antihero? Or just a psychopath gone off the rails?
I see admirable qualities in him, and many will disagree; but whether he’s an anti-hero or an outright Black Hat, Nightcrawler is an even more entertaining ride-along than End of Watch, another fine piece on Gyllenhaal’s resume, and with a character whose motivations are infinitely more pure.
You’ve seen the basic story of St. Vincent before: Crusty old person is forced into partnership with young whippersnapper, both parties learn and grow, pop tissues and roll credits.
But St. Vincent has something that all those movies don’t: Bill Murray.
As a comedian, a dramatic actor, and a person, Murray has gotten so far under our skin that there’s no overused, nauseatingly hyperbolic word that doesn’t fit him: I’m OK with “icon,” because Murray truly represents something – both the lightness and darkness of human nature, the sadness and absurdity of our modern world; but he’s also a rallying point, something we can all agree is good and right. And “legend” is OK with me, too — he’s been doing this for so long that a generation is just now discovering Murray’s talent and place in the entertainment cosmos, and will never really understand where it all came from, except through the telling of their elders.
Murray brings all of that to bear in St. Vincent, which is not in and of itself a great film, but it is a Great Bill Murray Film. And really, that’s all it needed to be great.
Actors Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy arrive at the “St. Vincent” premier during the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, Sept. 5, 2014.
Image: Evan Agostini/Associated Press
As Vincent de Van Nuys, a broken and boozy misanthrope, Murray is craggy and all out of hope, running out the clock on life. (You can almost imagine Murray like this in his private life, which is one of the great mysteries of modern entertainment enigmas, since he doesn’t really do press, or have any representation of any kind. For all we know, when he’s not making movies, Murray retreats to some grimy row house on an out-of-the-way street, crawls into a bottle of bourbon and watches reruns of The Golden Girls. OK probably not, but you get what I mean.)
Vin gets passed-out-drunk, he chain smokes, he gambles, he steals, he snarls at everyday people to make them feel bad about themselves, he sleeps with a pregnant prostitute and doesn’t pay her on time, he dodges his bookie – and when he’s forced to look after the little kid who just moved next door, he leverages it to his every advantage. He’s Bad Grandpa but without the blood relation to check his conscience.
He is not a nice man.
All of this is played to good comedic effect, and along the way, St. Vincent predictably begins to chip away at the curmudgeon to reveal a man who, unlike Gyllenhaal’s purely selfish, ambitious Bloom, is actually capable of making sacrifices for others, of feeling empathy, of being human.
But this is not purely a redemption story: Every time Murray’s Vin is cleansed in the goodness of a plucky child, a struggling single mom and a hooker who kind of likes him, he does something to renew the stain, and we start over.
Unlike Gyllenhaal’s Bloom, who never pays for his indiscretions because he feels no regret, Murray’s antihero suffers, and we suffer with him. But is that because of the character, or is it because of Murray?
To me, it’s the latter – and that’s why Murray was uniquely suited for this role. Throw in Billy Bob Thornton, or even Jack Nicholson (who Murray joked was the first choice for the role), and Vin is just a shameful, broken-down old drunk who acts like a human being once in awhile in spite of himself.
Everybody has feelings about Murray, and to leverage those feelings onscreen, in a way that’s just so, is a tricky thing to do. Especially when you’re dealing with a hero who’s as “anti” as Vincent de Van Nuys.
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