Justin Chon’s Comic Drama “Gook” Examines the Korean Experience of the L.A. Riots

Besides your discomfort, one effect of writer-director Justin Chon choosing the title Gook for his electric, impassioned second feature is a suggestion of definitiveness, a suggestion that, for better or worse, this isn’t just the story of its characters but that of a people.

The film, a comic drama tinged with tragedy, is set on the day in 1992 when South Central Los Angeles erupted after the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. Often, it’s a powerful corrective: In a subplot here we witness the story behind the stereotypical image, familiar from the news and garbage like Falling Down, of a Korean shopkeeper caught up in ugly confrontations with customers. This shopkeeper, played by Chon’s father, pulls a gun on a preteen African American girl (irresistible newcomer Simone Baker) he believes has been shoplifting; much later, as he listens to other local Korean business owners updating the community on a radio broadcast about attacks on their stores, he explains to a young Korean American man that, back home, every man had to serve some years in the military.

The young man seems surprised by this, mentions that he always thought his own immigrant father had made that up, and then somehow gets around to mentioning what he plans to do with his life: He’s going to be an r&b singer. Now it’s the old man who doesn’t understand.

At Gook’s best, Chon captures, with sharply memorable dialogue, both the essence of his particular characters but also the broad drift of generations. We meet two Americanized young men who have inherited their late father’s ratty shoe store; they work the counter, even hustling to stock it with some choice kicks a friend sells off a truck, but do so more out of familial obligation than any passion. Much of the film’s first half is low-key local-color comedy, shot with a free-roaming camera and an ear for crackling street talk. “You people always trying to rip us off,” a black woman says to Daniel (David So), the brother who wants to be a singer, as he rings her up. “You people?” he snaps. “Bitch, you never heard of fucking taxes before?” The initial hangout aimlessness, and the black-and-white photography, invites comparison to Kevin Smith’s Clerks, but Gook is more accomplished, more convincing, and often prickingly tense, as its characters can’t curl up in pop culture and hide from the world — both brothers get jumped by some toughs even before the riots. For all that, Eli (Chon), the protagonist, gets caught up in welcome glimpses of everyday rhapsody: the splendor of an automated car wash, a three-person dance party.

Chon shares strong scenes with So, whose character Eli must upbraid, and Kamilla, the girl accused of stealing by the shopkeeper across the street. She hates school, and hates her home even more, so she hangs at the shoe store, insisting she can help the brothers, who pretend at first only to tolerate her begrudgingly but clearly can’t resist her smile, her high spirits, her sweetness, and her hustle. All three leads give convincing, charismatic performances, even in Chon’s extended takes, which can find his actors shouting at each other for full minutes. As in all movies that study life over a day, little happens and everything happens, more than is credible.

The other film that haunts Chon’s is, of course, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, that masterpiece of neighborhood observation and inevitable conflagration. Lee’s miraculous film finds empathy for everyone, even the racist schnook son of the pizzeria owner — they’re all individuals, never types. It’s here that Chon’s film is troubling in ways its creator probably doesn’t intend: Gook has a villain, the older brother of Kamilla, who keeps siccing his posse on the brothers. In one excruciatingly lengthy scene, Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.) screams at Kamilla, telling her that those “gooks” are just using her, that they use everybody, and demanding that she tell him where she scored a pair of those high-dollar sneakers. Then, as the city burns, he of course races to the shoe store. This incident has none of Lee’s sense of tragic inevitability, and Chon’s late-in-the-film efforts to humanize Keith — to root the heel’s fury in a cycle of violence — aren’t persuasive enough to wash away the sense that another cycle is repeating: the on-screen demonization of black men.

Written and Directed by Justin Chon
Birthday Soup Films

Opens August 25
Regal Union Square 14


Justin Chon on “Gook” and Putting the Complex Truth of the Los Angeles Riots On-Screen

When actor-writer-director Justin Chon was eleven, his father took in early news reports about the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and left without a word to drive to the family’s shoe store in Paramount, California, a relatively poor 4.8-square-mile city bordered by Compton and Downey.

“In a lot of Korean families, when something’s wrong, people don’t say anything. They just react,” Chon says. “The verdict was about to come out, and as the day progressed, you could feel the energy change. Then the riots broke out.”

Chon was watching live as Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck and beaten. That footage then played on repeat. “It was movie-level violence,” he says. And then came footage of Korean store owners defending their businesses with guns and improvised weapons. “I was like, ‘Does this mean we have to move, have to change schools, make new friends?’ ”

As Chon got older, he returned to these memories again and again. His family’s shoe store was looted during the riots, though his father was unhurt. But the image of Denny and the pervasive anger and fear blanketing the city was something that he, as an actor and filmmaker, desperately wanted to reassess. Yet every role he read for in films about the L.A. uprising seemed to miss the mark of how those events affected individual people, especially Korean Americans.

As writer-director of his sophomore feature, Gook, Chon doesn’t take the riots head on, from the perspective of someone at ground zero of the unrest. Instead, he takes a long view, looking at the day leading up to the verdict and riots through the eyes of two families who are removed geographically a few miles from the violence but affected by it just the same — as Chon himself was.

In the film, an eleven-year-old African American girl named Kamilla (Simone Baker) has befriended two Korean American brothers — Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So) — who own and operate their deceased father’s ramshackle women’s shoe shop. The three are inextricably tied for life, because Kamilla’s mother and the men’s father were both shot and killed in a holdup at the store many years earlier. Kamilla’s brother Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.) blames the brothers for his mother’s death and their subsequent poverty. Leading up to the verdicts, TVs and radios are tuned to the news, setting a tense backdrop for a showdown between the two families.

“When I went out to pitch the project — it’s the craziest thing — it perplexed people that it was a film about a Korean store owner and an eleven-year-old black girl,” Chon says. “It blew my mind that they couldn’t wrap their heads around it, that these people would have relationships if they’re in the same neighborhoods.” Potential financiers were even more confused that the character of Daniel was aspiring to be an r&b singer — it seemed news to them that Korean Americans could be inspired by American pop. So it became even more important to Chon, having lived through the experience, to represent the people and riots as they really were — not as our popular culture usually imagined them.

The director even cast his own father in a pivotal role, as Mr. Kim, a traditional corner-store owner who refuses to speak English and butts heads with young Korean American men who want so badly to assimilate and thrive. But in convincing him to take the part, Chon found his father didn’t remember the riots with the same curiosity he did. “My dad is really grumpy. I wrote the part for him. But he was confused as to why I wanted to revisit this time. It took him three months to commit.” Still, the experience of directing his father proved significant for both. Chon found it was the first time that his dad seemed to view them each as “kind of equals, rather than with me lower than him in this Korean American age hierarchy.” Chon compares how his father reacted to the riots 25 years ago — getting in his car and driving away with no emotion — to how emotive he was on set while playing the role of Mr. Kim. “I’ve never experienced anything like that with him before,” Chon says with more than a hint of pride in his voice.

The cast worked together for two months of rehearsal, almost as though Chon were directing a play. (“They weren’t beholden to their marks. They could do whatever they wanted on the shoot day, but I wanted them to feel comfortable.”) Since Baker was so young, they didn’t have much time with her, and Chon had the uncomfortable task of teaching this little girl the history of the riots.

“Her mom really needed to be a part of the team,” Chon says. “So we talked a lot during those two months — about social issues, talking about each specific scene and what it meant. Obviously, she has no connection to this event emotionally, so it was hard for her to understand the gravity of the situation.”

As is the case with many films directed by actors, the nuanced, emotional performances drive Gook’s story. Chon believes both Baker and Cook are destined to be stars, and critics have celebrated both. Cook creates a multilayered character in Keith. As the actor performs “thuggish” actions — like jumping David So’s character and plotting to loot the shoe store — he conveys that Keith himself is also performing, trying to be someone he’s not. To portray vulnerability, even as you sock someone in the face, is extraordinarily difficult.

Since Chon made this Sundance-premiered film on a shoestring budget, he’s still shocked that he’s getting a limited theatrical run. But the warm reception to his passion project is a testament to how sorely needed a story of this kind was; Korean Americans were hit hard financially during the riots — half of the $1 billion of damage was sustained by Korean-owned businesses — and intergenerational conflict from the events still runs deep, as does uneasiness between the city’s African American and Korean American communities. “People shy away from talking about what they actually want to say,” Chon says. “We need to respect each other. But if we’re not actually talking, I think it’s just a bunch of tiptoeing around it.” And Chon, who’s relentlessly spoken out about race and discrimination in Hollywood, is the first to say he invites discussion and criticism about the portrayals in his film.

“Look, we’d be far better to one another in this country if we just talked, if we hit things head on.”


Going Coastal: Revisiting the Seventies SoCal of Eve Babitz’s “Sex and Rage”

Native Angeleno and besotted partisan of her hometown, the writer and polymath of pleasure Eve Babitz has often been defined by what she isn’t. She is the antithesis of Joan Didion, whose surveys of Southern California grimly chronicle anomie, and the inverse of Nathanael West, creator of some of Hollywood’s most grotesque residents. There are so few writers who love Los Angeles as much as Babitz does that perhaps her closest analogue, in terms of ardor for the city, is a fictional character in a movie: George, the unemployed architect played by Gary Lockwood in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969). Driving up to the Hollywood Hills, George takes in a spectacular view of L.A., later remarking to a friend, “I was really moved by the geometry of the place, its conception, its baroque harmony. It’s a fabulous city.”

Growing up “tan, with streaky blond hair, and tar on the bottom of her feet,” Jacaranda Leven, the protagonist of Babitz’s kicky künstlerroman Sex and Rage — first published in 1979, and the third of her books to be reissued within the past two years, following Eve’s Hollywood (1974) and Slow Days, Fast Company (1977) — would probably like to take George surfing. “Jacaranda believed that the ocean was a giant lullaby god who could be seduced into seeing things her way and could bring forth great waves,” Babitz writes of her heroine, who isn’t too far removed from the woman who has created her. (Babitz’s novels are crossbreeds in which memoir is the dominant gene, fiction the recessive.)

Like Jacaranda, a peerless sybarite who dreamed of being an “adventuress-painter” as a kid, Babitz magnetizes. Her prose pops with bizarre aphorisms like this one: “People go through life eating lamb chops and breaking their mother’s hearts.” The author, who was born in 1943, is both wide- and gimlet-eyed, delighting in the beauty and magic of other people but ever-attuned to their failures and cruelties — especially Jacaranda’s. “She was twenty-eight. It was time for her to O.D., not get published,” Babitz writes, with typical blunt-yet-fizzy force. Even when cataloging ruinous behavior, particularly her heroine’s, Babitz never loses her buoyancy, her archness.

Jacaranda is a feral, sun-kissed bibliophile: “She had no sense of ‘sin’ and no manners,” Babitz notes. “She was the way she was by the Levens’ letting her alone to read” — her father, like the author’s real-life dad, is a studio musician for 20th Century Fox — “and she knew her way around Los Angeles like a Bedouin on his own two thousand square miles of trackless waste.” When she isn’t reading or surfing or painting surfboards or taking on admin gigs that don’t require her “to be in a regular office where they expected her to wear shoes,” Jacaranda is beguiling men and often sleeping with them. The details of these carnal encounters are mostly omitted, since Babitz does such an excellent job generalizing them: “What went on between men and women was based on a kind of enraged foundation that to Jacaranda could only be transcended through clashes-by-night sex.”

Babitz takes us to SoCal nightspots like Barney’s Beanery, where Jacaranda “drank beer and flirted with artists at night,” and the Bamboo Cafe, where she mischievously asks movie producers, “Are you really casting Cher as Medea?” It’s at the latter establishment that New York literary agent Janet Wilton, in town for business, approaches Jacaranda — who’s begun to publish magazine pieces, the first on surfing — about representing her. In a passage epitomizing Babitz’s gift for the piquant detail, the protagonist, stunned by this offer, struggles to make sense of what just happened: “Jacaranda tried to focus on Janet Wilton but all she could remember other than that voice” — earlier described as “cement” — “was that the woman was wearing ruby stud earrings.”

The hundred or so pages devoted to Jacaranda’s brief time in New York are peppered with wry observations about magazine editors (“They had to be at every birth of a new trend, every debut, every next year’s event, or person, or gang war”) and East Coast superciliousness (“Don’t say ‘far out’; even if you are from California,” her book editor admonishes). Crucially, this section of Sex and Rage also emphasizes Jacaranda’s pitiless self-reckoning. She cuts ties with the poisonous charmers she first met back home and re-encounters in Manhattan, like Max, who “smelled like a birthday party for small children,” and Etienne, “built like a lizard or a saluki.” She stops drinking two days before boarding the plane to New York, “terrified of going someplace and being drunk all the time.”

However raw and revealing this section may be, Babitz remains, as ever, piety-free. There will be no twelve-stepping for Jacaranda, for “she was too much of a surfer to go to A.A., so she just sat sobbing there in wonderment. No team sports for her.” She may not be part of a squad, but she has steadfast allegiances. During lunch with one of those overweening Gotham literati, Jacaranda thinks this: “She was awfully glad that L.A. didn’t have to be New York no matter what. No burritos. Or taquitos.”

Sex and Rage
Eve Babitz
Counterpoint Press
243 pp.


Crack Drama “Snowfall” Can’t Get Its Game on Track

Days before the Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez on Me premiered, the news hit that John Singleton’s original script for the project opened the rapper’s story with Tupac being raped in prison. Singleton had left the ill-fated film twice before Benny Boom stepped in to helm it, but it was clear from that first screenplay that Singleton wasn’t fucking around. He was striving for the kind of gritty but stylized realism that distinguished his debut, 1991’s Boyz n the Hood.

With a slick look and a punchy logline — the series promises the origin story of the U.S. crack epidemic, told through fictional key players in 1980s Los Angeles — FX’s Singleton-created Snowfall certainly delivers some grit and realism, and it has an unnerving male-rape scene of its own. But Singleton the trailblazer has here come up with a series that’s more derivative than it is original, one without a clear focus — or the heart of recent series such as Fox’s Shots Fired.

Snowfall compares too easily to any number of peak-TV dramas. A slow-burn, less-is-more aesthetic comes courtesy of The Americans; a multitude of interlocking story lines and insider law enforcement knowledge owes something to The Wire; and a wry humor that dances with absurdity, along with a long-con narrative, recalls Breaking Bad. What’s surprising, though, is how many similarities Snowfall shares in form with a comedy: Silicon Valley.

That HBO series frustrates and delights (but mostly frustrates) with its cyclical narrative, in which the leads’ every success builds to a downfall, until everyone, every episode, is right back where they started. Snowfall functions similarly, with three main characters each plotting his own ascent — by pushing coke on the street, or being the muscle for a wannabe drug kingpin, or dealing powder to secretly fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Franklin (Damson Idris) is a good African American kid with entrepreneurial spirit. Gustavo (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) is a gentle giant in need of cash. And Teddy (Carter Hudson) is a sometimes befuddled, sometimes brilliant CIA agent in need of redemption. All fail miserably. Again and again. And it’s frustrating as hell. Only the spot-on casting and performances keep this show from spinning its wheels grave-deep.

Snowfall adjusts its visual style for each of its protagonists. Vintage yellows follow Franklin around like he’s living inside an old Polaroid, while Gustavo gets a grimy green filter heavy on the shadows, and Teddy is layered in a sterile blue tint. A fourth character on the fringe — eccentric Israeli drug lord Avi (Alon Moni Aboutboul), who seems ripped right out of Boogie Nights — soaks up a sunny, neutral light and acts as the fulcrum on which these three characters’ stories balance.

Every house Franklin enters — aunt’s, uncle’s, cousin’s — has a set of funky beaded curtains hanging between rooms, which seems more metaphor than period detail; this ambitious young man has the ability to see through obstacles, through the next door, but can’t help getting tangled up along the way. When he grows tired of playing it straight as a corner-shop cashier, he stumbles into Avi’s world to ask for a kilo of cocaine to move — money’s on his mind. The kid’s clean-cut, the kind of guy Bill Cosby would laud for good posture and grades, so it’s delightful to see him opposite Avi, as the silver-haired, Speedo-clad kingpin giggles, testing out bulletproof vests by shooting at his own drunken, hard-partying henchmen around the pool. Every scene with Avi pops with unpredictability and dark humor.

Meanwhile, Gustavo, a part-time luchador by the name El Oso, quietly objects to the outrageous demands of his new bosses, Pedro (Filipe Valle Costa) and Lucia (Emily Rios), who ask him to break into Pedro’s dangerous dad’s house and steal thousands of dollars. Every inch of Gustavo’s enormous body sighs, “I’m too old for this shit,” but he has no choice. Rios, best known for her role as Jesse’s love interest on Breaking Bad, shines in her role as a gutsy, thoughtful criminal. When an obstacle’s thrown in Lucia’s way, she grinds her teeth, her eyes shifting until they land on Gustavo, the solution to her problems.

And in the CIA realm, Teddy is an unexpected and welcome detour from the archetype of a jet-set agent. The first time we see him, he’s not charming ambassadors in a tailored suit; he’s in a humdrum office, shredding documents on a lazy Saturday. When another agent overdoses — after a sexy woman blows coke up the man’s ass — Teddy is pulled into an elaborate scheme to fund the war in Nicaragua by moving cocaine in the United States. (Though it’s fictionalized here, a similar operation actually happened.) We then see him don a Members Only jacket and pep-talk himself into character to meet with Avi. Hudson reveals immense depth in Teddy, a man who can shiver and howl with fear after finding a leach on his arm and, in the next second, suavely impersonate a cunning drug dealer.

For all that is glorious about the acting, directing, and individual scenes — many of which etched themselves in my memory — Snowfall is a collection of unique, beautiful flakes that don’t quite coalesce into a drift. More than halfway through the first season, the three story lines are still spiraling in opposite directions, with little indication that they’re ever going to tie together.

Snowfall airs Wednesdays on FX


Bad Turn Worse Plays Like a Superior ’90s Indie Crime Drama

From the opening robbery in a hard-land gas station, Simon Hawkins and Zeke Hawkins’s Bad Turn Worse floors it straight into the past — it plays like one of the best of those chatty, reflexive, standoffs-and-monologues crime indies every young dude in L.A. whipped up after Tarantino hit.

Deep into the third act, one character actually says, “Now you’re bluffing”; another, after announcing a betrayal meant to upend our understanding of what’s been going on, executes a little bow. (That one’s also tasked with proving the film’s un-PC bona fides, saying, “No reason you’d kill someone who exists, right? Just fucking Mexicans!”) After blowing thousands of (stolen) bucks on one dumb casino weekend, three Texas teens find themselves entangled with nowheresville murderers/gangsters/whatevers, led by Mark Pellegrino as a speechifying lowlife always happy to off someone other than the heroes to make a point.

Those heroes, meanwhile, number two dopey, hobbit-y dudes and one long-limbed tomboy who spends the movie fending them off, falling toward both, and outsmarting everyone else. Played by Mackenzie Davis, she’s complex and appealing and far and away the best thing here. (She’s also consistently subjected to threats of sexual violence.) For all its familiarity and rote nastiness, the film’s sharply crafted and quite promising.

True to its meta ilk, Bad Turn Worse includes lots of talk about how stories work — Jim Thompson is quoted — and a climax in which the bad guy compares what he’s doing to the plot twists in Gladiator and Rocky II. But such thoughts about narrative remain no substitute for a surprising and involving one, which screenwriter Dutch Southern never quite nails.


Through a Lens Darkly’s Thomas Allen Harris Explains Why We Must Look Anew at Images of Black America

It’s been almost 60 years since 14-year-old African American Emmett Till was beaten, tortured, and murdered by white men for having allegedly spoken to a white woman. His mother’s decision to hold an open-casket funeral so that the world could see — and photographers could document — the brutality inflicted on her son marked a turning point in the civil rights struggle. Images of the gruesomely disfigured child underscored black American realities for the world in a way that encapsulated past, present, and, seemingly, future.

When those images are shown in Thomas Allen Harris’s rich, moving documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, they have lost none of their power to horrify. But it’s the photos of Till’s weeping mother at his funeral that really devastate, and it’s impossible not to make the connection between Mrs. Till and the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Kendrick Johnson, Darrien Hunt, and too many more to mention.

See also: The Material in African-American Doc Through a Lens Darkly is Rich and Stunning

It’s a film dense with both information and purpose, and the Till photos distill something of Harris’s overall goals for Through a Lens: to document the photographic documentation of black life in America that was produced by black Americans; to use historical photos of black life to provide counter-narratives to prevailing bigoted notions; to mine history to help figure out how we might all break the cycles of inequity, inequality, and suffering.

Speaking by phone from Memphis, where he was appearing with the film, Harris elaborated on those goals.

“I think [what I’m doing] goes back to the idea of the griot, or Greek poet who tells a community its story so we don’t get caught up in these loops and we have a sense of who we are. It’s not just African Americans but the whole country that suffers when we don’t have a fuller view of history. In the post-screening conversation we had yesterday, people were talking about how the film gives a counter-narrative to the notion of Reconstruction as a failure. I’m in Memphis, and that’s such a prevalent idea, but actually Reconstruction was a success. The way it was branded after the fact has resulted in us seeing it as a failure. Reconstruction got torpedoed by that big rewrite of history, Birth of a Nation, an aesthetic achievement that recast Reconstruction as a failure and African Americans as savages, despite all of that being the exact opposite of the truth. That film, which caused laws and the truth to be completely shifted, is a testament to the aesthetic and political powers of the image.”

Ten years in the making, Harris’s film, based in part on art historian Deborah Willis’s groundbreaking book Reflections in Black, received some funding from PBS, but Harris was determined that the film not be an exercise in didactic, prescriptive filmmaking.

“I wasn’t interested in an explaining perspective, you know, explaining to a white audience” — here his voice pitches to a melodramatic tone — “what we’ve been through,” he laughs. “It was driven more by poetics and personal vision. I was very much aware that my primary audience was young people, particularly young people of color, but young people in general. There’s a certain way that they read and consume images which is very different than older generations. There’s a way in which they are able to make visual connections really fast because so much of digital space is fueled by images and is about how fast we can consume information. The film was made with all that in mind, and it’s kind of a call to action for young people, to have them maybe rethink some things about identity, the nation, the global community, the truth.”

The film is an expansive, fast-moving look at the African American experience since slavery, canvassing everything from the media savvy of figures like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth to the ways that contemporary black identity has been corroded by consumerism. A who’s-who from academia and the visual-arts world weighs in with historical context and pungent analysis. Issues from anti-blackness to intra-racial colorism, from the hiding-in-plain-sight dynamic of LGBT folks to the central roles that black women have played in both political and cultural life are all examined. None of it is rushed or unconsidered.

An example of Harris’s poetic approach to shaping the many and complex ideas is found in the sequence on black female photographers who lived and worked at the beginning and in the middle of the 20th century. The conversation on the women and their achievements makes its way to the remarkable life of Florestine Collins (1895–1988), who passed for white in order to claim career opportunities she’d have been denied as a black woman. The film then segues into a conversation about passing and its effects on black families, and smoothly circles back to photography. It’s a graceful shuffling of the thematic deck that never loses sight of the larger purpose.

“I went to college at a time when everyone was talking about affirmative action,” Harris says, “and both blacks and whites were saying, ‘Well, why haven’t African Americans pulled themselves up by their bootstraps the way the Irish or the Italians or Jewish people have?’ When you look at these images, you see that black people actually have pulled themselves up, but that narrative has been hidden within popular culture. When you hide these images of black families, of black people who have clearly worked very hard to achieve what they have, then what takes their place are all these stereotypes. And that is what society is fed. Then we end up with young [black] people who are putting out and consuming all these self-defeating images because that’s what we know to be us. My hope is to show that there was and is so much more than what we’ve been fed.”

Thomas Allen Harris’s Through a Lens Darkly plays Los Angeles this week and will be available for home viewing in 2015.


Nightcrawler’s Jake Gyllenhaal on Why We’re to Blame for Tabloid News

Jake Gyllenhaal is used to exhaustion. During his research for the LAPD drama End of Watch, he spent five months patrolling the streets with real-life police officers until 7 a.m. It was good preparation for his new movie Nightcrawler, a blistering portrait of a morally corrupt crime-scene videographer who works the literal graveyard shift. Writer-director Dan Gilroy would start filming at dusk and wrapped after sunrise, a sight Gyllenhaal now knows well. The 33-year-old actor would nap for four hours, and do it all again.

“There wasn’t a lot of sleeping going on,” says Gyllenhaal. “Surprisingly, I had a lot of energy. L.A. is vibrating at night in a way that you’d never really know. I was not looking forward for the sun to rise, which is a strange headspace to be in. The sun would rise, and I would get sad.”

Insomnia fits him. His Nightcrawler character, Lou Bloom, looks he hasn’t slept in years. He’s up all night listening to police scanners and speeding to film car crashes, murders, and fires to sell to ruthless TV news producer Nina (Rene Russo). During the day he plots how to become the owner of the station. Gyllenhaal played him like a human coyote — lean, hungry, and watchful — and lost 30 pounds for the part, giving Lou dark hollows on his cheeks and under his cold, blue eyes. Some days Gyllenhaal would run the 15 miles to the set and put on his costume without taking a shower. Lou’s hair is so greasy, who cares?

Even the day of our interview, Gyllenhaal woke up in New York and landed in Los Angeles by lunch. Not that his weariness shows. He’s so excited about Nightcrawler that he can’t stop quoting the screenplay, backing up his take on the character with bursts of movie dialogue like an eager grad student.

“I memorized the entire movie like a play,” says Gyllenhaal. “The script was extraordinary. I followed everything, to the punctuation, to a T.” He especially prized the tiny speeches on success that his character picks up by scouring the internet for business advice. Lou recites back with the fervor of a true believer, and he tries his best to be charming, but he gives people the creeps. It’s not just his passion for his job, filming stories to be titled “Toddler stabbed” and “Nursing home nightmare.” It’s his numbness toward the victims, the way he sings, “Crash with injuries, good neighborhood!” as he cruises to a sellable disaster — and then, once there, shoves his camera into bloody faces. Chirps Lou, “I like to say that if you’re seeing me, you’re having the worst day of your life!”

“Every movie is political,” says Gyllenhaal.” Like Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, Nightcrawler attacks the local news for serving up a straight diet of fluff and fear. Making things worse, in the last decade, the Web has increasingly blurred the line between important and unimportant news. “Information is going to be filtered,” says Gyllenhaal. “Even a cup to a string to another cup, you don’t get a clear sound.” The tragedy is that when real life is forever mediated, made into stories, then nothing truly matters — which is how Lou can film a dying man with no more emotional investment than watching a cat stuck in a tree. When his temper explodes, it’s bad for everyone. During one take, Gyllenhaal shattered a mirror with a punch and was rushed to the hospital for stitches.

Early rave reviews out of the Toronto International Film Festival called Lou a sociopath. Gyllenhaal disagrees. “He’s the animal of his time,” he says. “He’s purely the product of a generation where it’s success at any cost.” And for news stations like Nina’s, it’s ratings at any cost. Audiences want gore, and she wants to give audiences what they want. So merciless ghouls like Lou are our own fault. Insists Gyllenhaal, “If you call him a sociopath, it takes the onus off of us for creating him.”

Still, Gyllenhaal admits that some of his scenes are “so fucked up!” Like the one where Lou drags Nina to dinner and delivers a speech that spins in circles from his career ambitions to sexual blackmail, leaving his boss dizzy. “Lou’s having fun,” he grins. “He preys on desperate human beings.”

Does defending him mean Gyllenhaal is more forgiving of the paparazzi at TMZ who, like Lou, are just doing their jobs? Hell, no, he argues. “What Lou does is dealing with life and death, so I think it’s in no way comparable.” Besides, adds Gyllenhaal, “How many people in the world are doing things not for the money?”

Well, Gyllenhaal himself. After a flirtation with being a blockbuster heartthrob in Prince of Persia, he’s dedicated himself to dark, smart, serious films with a monomania that Lou would appreciate. “There’s a Lou in all of us,” he laughs. “I don’t know if that disturbs you!” Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Adds Gyllenhaal, “I think no matter what avenue Lou took, he would be ruling the world.”


Nightcrawler’s Jake Gyllenhaal Aces Being an Everyday Media Monster

Jake Gyllenhaal, not a particularly bulky guy to begin with, dropped 20 pounds or so to play a Los Angeles misfit who finds his calling as a freelance crime videographer in Dan Gilroy’s nervy thriller Nightcrawler. Even when Robert De Niro does it, weight change isn’t acting — it’s the antithesis of acting, merely a symbol of an actor’s dedication and not the tensile, complicated act of commitment itself, which can unspool only in performance. But you could say that in reshaping his body and face, Gyllenhaal has achieved a kind of
art direction of the self. His eyes, almost
inhumanly enormous within that now-bony face, are as much a part of the look
of Nightcrawler as its rapturous nocturnal Los Angeles streetscapes, dotted with palm trees, traffic lights, and cheerfully illuminated chain stores. As sociopathic self-starter Louis Bloom, Gyllenhaal has refashioned himself as a version of the Tony Perkins of Psycho, an Adam’s apple with a sick, brilliant mind attached.

Gyllenhaal is the polestar of Nightcrawler — just as he’s fixated on the grisly crimes and accidents of his city, we can’t look away from him. That seems to be part of writer-director Gilroy’s design. He’s
infused Nightcrawler with a number of ideas, free-floating through the movie like fireflies: Gilroy takes on the news media’s lust for increasingly prurient stories and graphic news footage, the way crimes against white people take precedence over anything that happens to a person of color, and the downside of citizen journalism in a world where everyone wants to be a star. But on the strength of Gyllenhaal’s performance, Nightcrawler works best as a character study. It’s chilling, but also wickedly funny and strange, like a good, dark Brian De Palma joke — in short, it’s everything the stolid and humorless Gone Girl should have been.

Gyllenhaal’s Bloom is an eager, intense young man, given to spinning out long, complex sentences in the language of inspirational speakers. That’s because everything he’s learned, he’s learned from the internet, and scarily, all that knowledge ends up serving him well. As Nightcrawler opens, Louis commits an act of brutality that clearly signals how cracked his
conscience is. But he’s also weirdly likable, an urban underdog who irons his shirts in front of the TV, chuckling over goofy sight gags from the 1955 Danny Kaye vehicle The Court Jester. Clearly, he’s a TCM fan — how can you not want to like him?

By accident — and at the scene of an
accident where a woman is just barely pulled from an about-to-explode car — Louis encounters Joe Loder, a freelance journalist of sorts, played by a half-lumbering, half-swaggering Bill Paxton: Loder chases down potentially gruesome incidents and sells the footage to local TV
stations for big bucks. Louis is enthralled, and before long he’s bartered a stolen bicycle for a cheap video camera and a police radio from ancient times. (It’s emblazoned with the nostalgic brand logo Realistic.) Rene Russo’s flinty-hot Nina Romina, a news director at a flailing TV station,
eagerly buys whatever grim footage Louis can come up with, and he’s distressingly good at finding it. Pushing his camera into the tightest, bloodiest spaces, he’s an heir to Weegee, but a dispassionate one.

Louis has no scruples; he’s just a bundle of raw ambition. He takes on an eager but baffled apprentice, Rick (the quietly magnetic Riz Ahmed), and immediately begins to manipulate him — from there, his misdeeds pile up like a careless driver’s traffic tickets. If you’re looking for plot realism, go elsewhere: In real life, nobody could obstruct as much justice as Louis does and get away with it. Still, Nightcrawler is unnerving because we never know just how far Louis will go. He’s sympathetic enough that we somehow wish he wouldn’t do these awful things, and malicious enough that we recoil from his apparent naïveté, which is really a kind of shrewdness.

Nightcrawler, shot by the enormously gifted Robert Elswit, is dazzling to look at. The opening-credit sequence is like the movie version of an old-fashioned fold-out postcard, a selection of nighttime L.A.
delights: the Capitol Records Building, aglow as if it had just touched down from Mars; columns of palm trees whose leaves shimmer in the wind like tinsel; construction sites whose shadowy beams and scaffolding, left behind by workers for the day, speak of growth and progress, or at least a new nest of office spaces. And then there are Gyllenhaal’s deep, dark eyes, taking it all in. His next big story could come from anywhere: a jackknifed tractor-trailer, a carjacking, a home invasion. He’s addicted to looking, and it’s our shivery pleasure to watch him do so.


’80s Pop Music Comedy Eternity: The Movie at Least Gets the Terribleness of the Songs Right

The plodding Eternity: The Movie has only the best intentions: to send up the ’80s along with the terrible, synthesized whiteboy r&b of the era. But the godawful voiceover narration by Barrett Crake immediately telegraphs the film’s sluggishness and lack of imagination. Todd (Crake), a Midwestern kid who moves to Los Angeles, meets fellow musician B.J. (Myko Olivier), and they form a terrible pop duo called Eternity.

Some period montages happen, and they rise to the top of the charts before falling in love with the same woman. Meanwhile, the dialogue is overgrown with moronic gay entendres that the characters are too stupid to get and that most audiences are too enlightened to laugh at. The jokes are slow and obvious, and the editor lingers over every one like a sleepy drunk over a basket of tater tots, stoically holding the shot long after any reasonable person would have concluded that a punchline had occurred.

The songs are authentic enough, though. The composer was really, really good at writing forgettable, saxophone-laden pop. Good job! Eric Roberts slums hard in a bit part as a clothing retailer with a nasal drawl, and Jon Gries works about as hard here as he did in Napoleon Dynamite. Comedy about halfwits who are deadly serious about mediocre pop was better fielded by the Web series Yacht Rock, and with way less homophobia.

Are the screenwriters and director Ian Thorpe overcompensating for anything? It doesn’t exactly leave unsightly stretch marks on plausibility’s sexy, bare midriff.


The Overnighters Is a Tragic Doc About Loving Your Neighbor

Quick, name the most expensive housing market in America. If you said New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, you couldn’t be farther from the truth — literally. Each is over 1,500 miles away from Williston, North Dakota, a monochrome town you can drive end-to-end in 15 minutes. In four years, the population of Williston has doubled as newcomers gold-rush to work the newly discovered Bakken Shale formation, the largest oil find in U.S. history. But these men need a lot of black gold to afford a place to sleep. The average cost of a 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Williston is $2,394 a month — almost $1,000 more than the same space in Manhattan.

Jesse Moss’s documentary The Overnighters is a heart-wrencher about the clash between economics and ethics. Its story sounds like the sort of dry news blurb you’d skim over in the Sunday paper but unfolds into an epic tragedy. To the locals, Williston is under attack from the hordes who have flooded their once-quiet town. (“These people come and then they rape, pillage, and burn, and then they leave,” spits one woman.) To the invaders, Williston is the end of the line, the last domino to tip over in the chain of disasters that began when the recession wreaked blue-collar havoc, cost folks their homes, and forced these men to fend for their families by striking out for North Dakota alone.

We see the transplants decamp for Williston in video diaries where they cross their fingers about the jobs they hope they’ll find. And we see them when they arrive: homeless, hated by the community, and clustered in the corners of Williston’s Concordia Lutheran Church. Pastor Jay Reinke, a soft-voiced father of four who favors lavender button-up shirts, has given his blessing to sleep anywhere they fit: in storage rooms, along the hallways, even between pews.

Reinke’s got rules. There’s no swearing, no drinking, no spilling coffee, no long hair. “Did Jesus have short hair?” one metalhead counters. Sighs the pastor, “Jesus didn’t have our neighbors.” But more importantly, Reinke’s got an unshakeable belief that Williston’s crisis could be cured if the townspeople practiced what Jesus preached and opened their hearts (and homes) to strangers. Love thy neighbors, he pleads, even if they’re squatting in a van.

Can this gentle, optimistic man — the living embodiment of Ned Flanders — change the minds of the town he’s served for 20 years? With the local Williston Herald printing rabble-rousing stories about the new thugs in town, he doesn’t seem to have a prayer. As the city considers an RV ban, and then debates closing Reinke’s dormitory altogether, the pastor pilgrimages door to door begging locals to give the outsiders a chance, and trying his best to maintain his belief that there are good people in his town. After a door gets slammed in his face, he snaps, “Not to judge people by appearances, but a man with no teeth, living with his daughter, calling other people who have needs ‘trash.’ ” But you sense if Moss kept the cameras rolling, Reinke would have corrected himself and apologized.

The Overnighters could have been a simplistic parable about redemption, and for the first 30 minutes it seems to play like one. The newcomers say all the right, rote things: that Reinke’s faith in them has given them faith in themselves, that they’re more than their struggles and mistakes. Former drug addict Alan spent 16 years in prison and is now Reinke’s right-hand man. A flinchy screw-up named Paul admits that no one has ever cared about him, and Reinke immediately replies, “I want to love you — I love you.”

But hope is fragile. Once Moss completes the social-issues survey and zeroes in on Reinke, the doc goes from good to great. Reinke loves everyone. He has to. Unlike the blowhards who’ve given religion a bad reputation, Reinke is so self-effacing you want to step into the screen and give him a hug. In his own editorials for the Herald, with titles like “Newcomers Should Be Welcomed Because They Are a Gift From God” and “People, We Can Do This,” he confesses to his own fatigue every time a new man arrives at his church, and then explains — seemingly almost to himself — how to spin exhaustion into empathy.

His forgiveness has no limit. But the town’s does. When a local reporter — a transplant himself, in Williston for only two weeks — accuses him of harboring a sex offender on church property, Reinke moves the man, a truck driver named Keith, into his own house. When Keith then tests Reinke’s trust, we watch this good man’s sandcastle dreams start to crumble. The film then urges us to look to the rest of the men, who need Reinke’s faith to survive, and without it, risk being broken in ways they weren’t broken before.

Is Williston’s own faith so broken that one sinner outweighs a living saint? It’s a question Reinke is left wrestling with himself. He still writes editorials for the Williston Herald. The title of a recent piece: “Graduates, Don’t Try to Change the World.”

Directed by Jesse Moss.