Three thrillers for the price of one: Critical reviews of “Nightcrawler,” “Dracula Untold” and “A Walk Among the Tombstones”

A remarkable thing happened to me the other week: I watched three thrillers, DVD rentals no less, and each one had noticeable crossover when it came to the trailers before the features. It seems that the expectation is that anyone who watches “Nightcrawler,” “Dracula Untold” or “A Walk Among the Tombstones” would probably also want to watch “The Man With the Iron Fists,” “Ouija,” “The Guest,” “Dragonheart 3” and “Scorpion King 4,” in addition to each other.

My three movies appeared to be quite different: an offbeat art noir, a slickly produced action-fantasy, and a big budget crime novel adaptation. But, to the credit of the marketing department, I had rented all three. What can I say? Advertisers are geniuses.

“Nightcrawler”

To succeed in life, one needs a business plan. If that business plan involves filming people without permission, or while they’re dying, then so be it. So says Jake Gyllenhall in “Nightcrawler.” He’s a freelance videographer who seems blissfully unclear of ethics, both journalistic and human, in his effort to get the goriest story to Channel Six an hour ahead of schedule.

On this mission, Gyllenhaal crawls through the titular night, which is both the literal night (day shots are few and initially short montages to depict the passage of time) and the metaphorical night of…a major city? the human psyche? the media? the capitalistic grind? Take your pick. The script is playfully smart, so the film neatly supports any number of philosophical or psychological interpretations.

Either way, you’ll stick around for Gyllenhaal’s mesmerizing performance. He hovers around scenes, rather than truly inhabiting them, with an otherworldly grace that is as eerie as it is menacing and can be easily compared to Christian Bale’s sociopathic Patrick Bateman. Which is not to ignore the supporting cast. Rene Russo and Bill Paxton are thoroughly watchable as a news director and rival freelance videographer respectively, and Riz Ahmed is thoroughly believable as Gyllenhaal’s “intern,” who tries to cling on to circumstances that are ultimately much bigger than he is.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s story unfolds gently, but it is a gentleness that is punctuated by fascinating juxtapositions. The first 10 minutes of the film take us from the outskirts of LA into the city. The score is alternatively driving and delicate, and it set the scenes perfectly, often through dark irony (note the pumped up score for the world’s most uncomfortable training montage, the glorious music during the bloody climax, and, of course, the radio in the Mexican restaurant).

As can be expected from a film about photography, there are some excellent and intelligent shots throughout–most notably one where Gyllenhaal and Russo are standing in front of a giant video monitor that displays a nighttime LA cityscape. They appear to be outside despite being in a newsroom. “It looks real,” Gyllenhaal concurs. Yes it does.

“Dracula Untold”

This film takes a look at the “historic” Dracula in order to answer an age old question: How did one man manage to impale so many people? (Kind of ironic, when you think about it. Vampires are killed by impaling, but Vlad was the king of the impalers!) The answer is that Dracula’s a good dad who only became a vampire to save his son, who was kidnapped by the Turkish empire in an odd conflation of the practice of noble hostage taking and Janissary training, paired with some genuine ignorance of medieval culture. Still, I suppose anyone who watches a movie called “Dracula Untold” with some expectation of a history lesson deserves exactly what they get.

Luke Evans scowls and broods his way through the film as Dracula, like a good modern vampire, but fails to make any emotional connection with the audience. Even the villains, who usually have the most fun in bad movies, seem tame. In fact, the only character with any blood is veteran British actor Charles Dance, whose Master Vampire seems to act like a confessor for Evans (ala Dustin Hoffman for Milla Jovovich’s Joan of Arc), until he too is thrown on the scrapheap of mediocrity.

Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless’ script is always unclear (if it’s about how men fear monsters but monsters are misunderstood, why is Evans so obviously worthy of fear?), but in the last third it begins royally falling apart, and the entire film devolves into a CGI slaughterhouse. I’d complain more but, despite the source material, larger issues like religion, humanity or sexuality are never explored. It’s hard to miss what was never there.

I can, however, complain about the lighting. The film is lushly produced, but the standard practice of dark fantasy is to shroud everything in, well, darkness. As such, one cannot see the elaborate sets and costumes intended to invoke the era, let alone watch the fights. During the battle scenes, I found myself craving a director like Tim Burton, who can illuminate darkness, or Terry Gilliam, who forgoes it altogether.

“A Walk Among the Tombstones”

A note among the Tombstones: I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how much of a difference it makes. The movie at least starts off with a couple of shots–two in glasses and several out of guns fired by cop Liam Neeson and…does it honestly matter who Neeson is shooting at? Just as long as he’s shooting. We learn (repeatedly) that drinking lost its taste for Neeson that day, and he became a private detective who takes a job from drug kingpin Dan Stevens, whose wife has been kidnapped, tortured and returned to him in small plastic bags. Neeson has to find the killers so Stevens can return the favor, which results in a grim and sexless journey populated by a cast of seedy weirdos (most notably Olafur Olafsson as a deliciously awkward cemetery groundskeeper).

The film is slow but interesting to look at, often handsome and stylishly shot, almost to the point of distraction. It’s as if director Scott Frank had “The Idiot’s Guide to Cool Photography” in his back pocket and wanted to hit all the stops at least two or three times. Oh well. That’s a lame complaint, I suppose, that the film is comprised of a bunch of pretty pictures.

The gore is actually quite contained; it happens off screen and is relayed through various found objects (an audio recording, some trash bags), which means that it’s far more psychologically effective than your average torture porn. Who needs blood when you have kidnappers David Harbour and Adam Thompson sneering and smirking their way through scenes?

The film sports a kind of nihilistic egalitarianism (which, more than the gore, puts it in line with movies like “Se7en” and “8mm”). In the creepily fleshy title sequence, we see how sex and death, fear and pleasure, are parallel. Cops and criminals are parallel; they are displayed as alternately upstanding community members and thoughtless or brutal killers, and neither is safe from kidnap and torture. Neeson brings the wicked to judgment but never stays around to watch justice done, and the film ends with a flatness that defies its excess of camera angels. However, “Walk” itself isn’t flat. While it won’t break any new ground, it’s a nice piece of entertainment for thriller fans.

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