Thoughts On ‘Gone Girl’, ‘Nightcrawler’, and American Media Culture

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Two very different films released in October, Gone Girl and Nightcrawler, have a lot to say about American media culture and the way we consume events on television. David Fincher’s Gone Girl examines how stories become sensationalized by frenzied media and a salacious cultural appetite, while Tony Gilroy’s Nightcrawler explores the lengths some will go to to capture and create the sensation and stoke the fear of members of the public. 

While not his best feature (or his worst), Gone Girl, like all his films from Seven onwards, highlights and showcases David Fincher’s brilliance and impeccable precision as a filmmaker. He uses that acumen to present a picture of how media, particularly cable news outlets, sensationalize and shape the narrative of certain stories. Tony Gilroy’s directorial debut Nightcrawler is the story of how those stories are captured on tape and make it to air in the first place. And whereas the media focused on by the film and the media that turns its attention to Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is national, the media examined in Nightcrawler is local.

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Local news across the United States has a particular way of sensationalizing violent crime and catastrophe, stoking a culture of fear and perpetuating an image of a community and a nation rife with crime and constant danger. As someone who worked in local news for a time some years ago, I can say that many aspects of Nightcrawler jibed with what I experienced and observed in the broadcasting of local news programs. While instances of violent crime have been steadily declining in the United States for many years now, local news media in many cases continue to present and foster a narrative of increasing peril. In Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, in a terrific performance) provides footage for the presentation of such stories, eventually manipulating events to provide maximum impact for the events he captures. This particular part of media culture functions on a feedback loop; the lust for ratings and sensational headlines on the part of the network, creating an incentive for Bloom to collect the most horrific images he can.

A large part of Gone Girl focuses on the way certain national media help shape the narrative of salacious “true crime” stories, in many cases vilifying the subjects at times without the proper facts and outside of context, well before the legal process plays out in such cases. In many ways, this is another aspect of the same phenomenon mentioned above about local news broadcasts. This aspect of it is a product of and a feed into our celebrity culture, looking at the way we make national figures out of people and examine areas of their lives. The national media play a role in shaping the perception of these individuals, often defining their public persona and reputation for the remainder of their lives. Nick struggles to prove his innocence as the media focused on him shape the perception of him in the eyes of the public.

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Both films are, to a large extent, about how media shapes narrative. While Gone Girl is about the results of that process, Nightcrawler is about the process itself. Bloom exploits other people’s personal suffering for his own financial gain. While there are many professions and people who practice them that profit from human suffering, Bloom’s profession depends on him shooting it on video, capturing the moment without directly influencing it. Much has been written by Susan Sontag and others about the detachment of those behind cameras. While capturing an event on tape or film, you’re a part of the event even without truly participating. The camera is intrusive, voyeuristic, and serves to detach the individual behind it whatever they’re capturing. Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool comes to mind as another film that explores this phenomenon.

The mark of Medium Cool and other classics from the Hollywood Renaissance can be seen throughout Nightcrawler, in terms of both content and style. One can see the influence of Sidney Lumet’s seminal Network, as well as the work of Paul Schrader; a master of examining the psyche of the isolated, antisocial urbanite. Two films from the 1980s also come to mind as possible influences on Nightcrawler: Brian DePalma’s Blow Out and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Aesthetically, Nightcrawler feels very much like a late 70s-early 80s film, with the grit and cynicism so much associated with New Hollywood and the tropes of an era associated with high crime rates and urban blight.

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Despite harkening back to past eras, Nightcrawler is also a film about our present moment, touching on issues such as unemployment. Bloom is very a much a man of the Great Recession, floating around in a weak jobs market he’s unsuited for with no particular skills or qualifications, trying to mold himself into whatever job is at hand until he finally finds his “niche” in shooting crime and accident scenes for television.

Gone Girl, on the other hand is wholly a film of our time and our current rapid reaction, fast moving, media and news cycle that Nick is in many ways a victim of. Nick is also able to use media to his advantage however, as is his wife and antagonist Amy (Rosamund Pike). Both Nick and Amy are keenly aware of the way that media shapes narrative and the absolute necessity of steering that process for their own sakes.

Worth noting in both films are the pair of performances from their respective leads. Ben Affleck continues his comeback tour as he returns to leading man status with another strong lead performance, following Argo and The Town. Affleck is really good at playing a relatable guy despite having movie star good looks, which was perfect for this role. Jake Gyllenhaal puts another notch in his “creepy weird guy” belt, playing an awkward, off-putting, yet articulate and driven man who starts out as what many people would consider a “loser” and is never someone anyone would consider a charmer.

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Also worth mentioning in terms of Gone Girl is the performance of Rosamond Pike who was quite good and arguably the stand-out of the cast. And I have to say, as a detractor of his writing and directorial work, Tyler Perry was quite good in Gone Girl as well in what has to be considered nothing short of a master stroke of casting, him being the last person I would have envisioned for that role judging from the book.

For as diverse and varied a group of film’s as David Fincher’s are there are some central themes he seems to come back to above others. Among these are image and identity. By image I mean the way people present to other people and by identity I mean the way that those same subject perceive themselves. Nick has a very specific image of himself he likes to project and present to others; that of a “nice” midwestern guy. Amy has an image of what she refers to as a “cool girl” she projects in order to manipulate, influence, and eventually frame Nick. Additionally, their respective images are crucial to the way they define their identities, their perception of themselves.

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I can’t go without mentioning something that connects Gone Girl to David Fincher’s previous two films, that being the phenomenal score from composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Of the three scores they’ve done for Fincher, Gone Girl is the second best, in my opinion, after The Social Network, which I think was the best score of the past few decades. Both atmospheric and evocative,   Reznor and Ross’s score does an excellent job of setting a mood and underlining a story where so much lies under the surface for much of the time before exploding at a certain point in the story.

Perhaps most important of all the things that links Gone Girl to Fincher’s larger body of work is of course his meticulous attention to detail and the astounding technical mastery of him and his team. Fincher’s compositions are so pristine his films sometimes feel as though they take place in a hermetically sealed universe controlled by him, which in a manner of speaking is what films are after all. The difference between most filmmakers and filmmakers like Fincher is that Fincher demands perfection and comes closer to achieving it than most.

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