*. This was a pleasant surprise, seeing as I’ve been no fan of Jake Gyllenhaal thus far in his career. He’s excellent here, however, as the glib, shallow, hungry go-getter, someone who has been rasied online and consequently has no meaningful connections to anyone (alas, so much for “social” media!). The unblinking eyes that seem wired open with drugs reveal a total lack of affect. There’s an absolute emptiness about him, not just of feeling but of intellectual development. Indeed he doesn’t really want to grow or develop as a person, preferring to brand himself as a corporate entity, the corporation being the perfect psychopath.
*. Who does he remind me of? As an actor, Christopher Walken’s creepy menace comes to mind. As a character there’s some of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, The Killer Inside Me‘s Lou Ford, and No Country for Old Men‘s Anton Chigurh. In the latter case I’m thinking more of McCarthy’s novel than the movie. In the book, Chigurh is just another soulless freelancer doing whatever it takes to do a thorough job and impress the Man. But the resemblance between Bardem in that movie and Gyllenhaal here is uncanny, with the same blank expression and similarly dated haircut.
*. A second pleasant surprise: this is not just another satire on the “if it bleeds, it leads” culture of tabloid news. That’s a place we’ve been many times before, with first-rate movies like Ace in the Hole, and Network. Rene Russo, for example, is suitably scary and worn here as the production manager working the vampire shift on the lowest rated television news program in the city, but she’s a familiar type. Louis Bloom, however, is someone relatively new, and I don’t just mean the Internet-enabled citizen journalist.
*. I said earlier that he’s an empty vessel, and that what he’s been poured full of is pop-capitalist ideology and motivational catchphrases. In previous eras we were always a little suspicious of young men on the make, but as the going has gotten tougher it’s clear that the worst are rising to the top (or racing to the bottom, which comes to the same thing). The embrace of a social Darwinist perspective means that the city is a jungle and only the most savage or opportunistic will survive. Bloom was visualized by Gyllenhaal as a coyote, and this was apparently thought of as an alternative title for the movie. Instead they went with the name of a kind of worm. But scavengers and parasites are predators too.
*. Sadly, the economy is in such a funk that even crime doesn’t pay. Bloom can’t make a living off of selling stolen goods, despite the huge risks he takes. And let’s face it, despite what seem to be outrageous violations of the law, and some outright corporate sabotage, he only finally “makes it” due to a spectacularly lucky break.
*. I like the script, but it’s really a two-hour monologue. There isn’t much of a story. The whole movie is Bloom’s presentation of self.
*. As such, it’s very important that it begins the way it does. Bloom isn’t just a hustler on the make. Along with all of the fencing he can fit in his car, he steals the security guard’s watch. That single act undercuts all of his clichéd blather about struggling upward.
*. I take it the billboard with the staring eyes is a nod to Gatsby‘s eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, but in Fitzgerald’s novel, however ironic their appearance, those are the eyes of God not missing the fall of a sparrow and finally calling down divine retribution. Here they are the camera eye (“focus”), and the camera always lies. As for justice, of the divine, poetic, or legal kind, you can forget it.
*. Gyllenhaal apparently injured his hand in the mirror-smashing scene. Two questions: (1) Shouldn’t they have set that up so that it was safer? Lead actors aren’t supposed to get hurt performing such simple stunts; (2) Should they have shown Bloom snapping like that — his gaunt, smiling mask slipping to reveal the maniac beneath? I don’t think they had to, and I would have left it out. Gyllenhaal had already sold us on the character and I didn’t buy that someone so self-controlled would have a meltdown like that. But there’s a real pressure on filmmakers to avoid subtlety and leave nothing to chance or open to ambiguity.
*. As an example of leaving things open to interpretation, what are we to think of Bloom’s treatment of Rick? Does he have a genuine interest in seeing him grow, in being a mentor to him? Or does he enjoy humiliating him, in finally turning the tables and getting him to parrot all the ass-kissing lines he’d had to memorize and recite to prospective employers while negotiating from a position of emasculating weakness? It may depend on how you read the way they play with their names, whether they are Louis or Lou, Richard or Rick.
*. Then there is his troubling sexuality. Does he really like older women? Is he acting out some sense of childhood insecurity, or indulging another revenge fantasy? Is he even interested in Nina (I take it for granted that he doesn’t care about her), or is he a pure narcissist? I take the darker point of view, but if you want to see him as having some humanity then you might find something else there. Or perhaps humanity isn’t the word I’m looking for. Man is a wolf to man.