Two Recommendations (both involving a Gyllenhaal)

Two things that entertained me this month, both highly recommended, each starring a Gyllenhaal.

The Honorable Woman

This 8-part miniseries is the best thing TV I've seen on TV in 2014 so far. I first tried watching it on the Sundance Channel on DirecTV, but the channel has yet to switch to HD so I ended up purchasing the miniseries on iTunes.

The plot hangs loosely off of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but what I loved most is the spy story at its heart. As a hopeless devotee of Le Carré, I can't resist stories that slowly peel away the dozens of layers that build up around deep political secrets. These types of dramas offer the sweet pleasure of a mystery yarn with the smoky, bitter overtone of political jousting. It's a television Manhattan, and I drank a glass each night before bed over one pleasurable week.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is the cryptic beating heart of the series, but she's surrounded on all sides equally great performances. I could spend hours longer with Stephen Rea's droopy hangdog face. His quiet line readings recalled Alec Guinness's amazing performance in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, still my favorite Le Carré adaptation ever. Someone build a recurring TV series or miniseries around Rea as an aging spy! Remember how fantastic Mirren was as in great recurring miniseries The Prime Suspect? Rea could fill similar shoes.


On to the other Gyllenhaal. At TIFF this year, I had two tickets each to two movies playing at the same time. One was Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and the other was The Drop. I couldn't choose between the two so I let the other three folks pick, and I ended up with a ticket to The Drop. I wasn't unhappy about that. While I've always struggled with Jake Gyllenhaal's past work, never really feeling that inner life that reads on screen as charisma.  

I didn't love The Drop. It's a Dennis Lehane crime drama set in Brooklyn, but it doesn't feel authentically Crooklyn. Lehane's Boston films are filled with local flavor, but The Drop lacks geographic authenticity. I recognized only tropes of Hollywood pulp. It's not entirely bereft: my parting gifts were the final performance from James Gandolfini, with his drooping eyelids giving away the weariness winning out against his rage, and yet another type of character from Tom Hardy who seems to diversify his portfolio as much as possible with every role.

It wasn't until tonight that I finally caught Nightcrawler (at the Mill Valley Film Festival; who knew?). I enjoyed the movie, and moreover, I appreciated Gyllenhaal's performance.

Nightcrawler is a gleefully savage satire on many levels. Most obviously, it extends the through line of Network in savaging the evolution of the media business and delves deeper into the economics of modern network news.

But it's also an indictment of the soullessness of modern management philosophy and homo economicus, and this is where the movie's humor is at its most dark, bitter, and hilarious. Almost all the characters chase after status and wealth in the most rational manner, and it leads them straight into the darkness of the Los Angeles night, whose garish neon lights have always stood in for a sort of chemical sickness at the heart of it all.

None of them is as determined and ruthless as Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom, a thief of a bizarre ambition who finds his calling as a nightcrawler, a person who listens to the police channel on a radio and races to crime scenes with a camcorder to capture garish footage to sell to local network news channels. Bloom speaks like an MBA, but not a natural one. Instead, he mouths the usual management platitudes as if he read about them in a book, as if it's he's trying the language and ideas on for size. We know from his background that this is a second language for him.

He brings on an assistant to read off directions while he drives, and the appropriation of corporate HR language, motivational jargon, and branding to what amounts to a two-man operation run out of a car is a blunt but effective way of magnifying its emptiness.

Lastly, it's a sly jab at filmmaking itself. Bloom directs his assistant to capture additional footage that will cut well with Bloom's own footage later on, and at times Bloom moves props and even bodies around crime scenes to clarify the narrative and pathos of his footage.

If it bleeds, it leads. If a successful capitalist enterprise is all about giving customers what they want, at all costs, then Lou Bloom is one possible outcome for modern network news: an underpaid freelancer as focused on creating the news as reporting on it.