Violence: John Wick and Nightcrawler
John Wick and Nightcrawler are both action thrillers with a great deal of violence. But they are very different movies. Chad Stahelski, a former stunt assistant director and the novice movie director of John Wick, has positioned his revenge movie somewhere between Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (I never saw Vol. 2) and David Cronenberg’s 2005 A History of Violence. As in the latter comic book novel on which the film is based, John Wick is mostly a flashback to just before the current phase of violence until its culmination. Unlike A History of Violence, where the hero instigated his fallout with the mob, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) retired from his role as a mob hit man on good terms with the New York-based Russian crime family because he had met the love of his life and had performed the almost impossible assignment for the Russian mob boss, Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), of eliminating the latter’s mob rivals. That stunning performance (not shown) earned John his exit ticket from the criminal underworld.
The revenge and his re-entry into murder and mayhem are propelled initially because of a total coincidence – Josef Tarasov (Afie Allen), the spoiled son of his former employer, develops the hots for the 1969 vintage Mustang convertible that John drives when Josef sees it parked at a coffee shop. In a home invasion that night, Josef and his bodyguards beat John up. In the process, Josef kills John’s dog, Daisy, a gift of his late recently departed and much loved wife who died of cancer. All of the above takes place within the first ten minutes of the movie. The quest for revenge is spurred by the violent murder of Daisy.
Why does John retire in the same city in which the Russian mob holds total sway? How is it that neither Josef nor his two sidekicks know of the infamous John Wicks, dubbed the bogeyman? How can only three men at the beginning of the mobster film beat John to a pulp when, in the rest of the movie, in a series of three different scenes, John Wick slaughters scores – literally scores – of Russian mobsters? Could the answer be because he had buried his enormous collection of firearms in concrete before he retired? Without guns, he is literally a sitting duck, whereas once the weapons are unburied, he can beat anyone in boxing, wrestling, and using the most violent of the martial arts, though his main tool of slaughter is the machine gun and the pistol. But if you have to ask questions about realism and causation, then the film has not swallowed you in the high kinetic pace of a series of brilliantly staged massacres. After all, the intelligence of the movie has been concentrated in stunt driving and the most graphic murder scenes.
My wife, who said the movie was the worst she had ever seen – she is not a lover of violent action thrillers – thought it must have been a spoof. Kill Bill is a spoof since Tarantino directed it with choreographic brilliance and with his tongue in his cheek. Tarantino is a consummate craftsman with a fantastic sense of humour. I could not find an ounce of comedy or satire in John Wick. It was but one scene of murder and mayhem followed by another, with only the slenderest thread tying the scenes together. Instead of serving as an implicit commentary on the genre of violent films or even as a more explicit one as in A History of Violence, the violence in John Wick consists only of cinematic effects, though the latter are brilliantly executed.
Uma Thurman in Kill Bill arises like Lazarus from the dead – a victim of murder by Bill of her whole bridal party. She alone survived in a coma for years. Keanu Reeves recovers by the next scene. John Wick lacks any of the tricks of magic realism that so infused Kill Bill and transformed the genre of action thriller into a fairy tale for modern times with no narrative. The plot takes no more than a sentence to describe. In John Wick, it takes three or four sentences, and that is at least two too many. The far too long plot line with a few twists never offers enough to create mystery, but strings together too many sequences that provide plenty of time to question the slender artifice on which the film rests. It would have been better to rely on the sheer gratuitous quality of the action.
In the fairy tale, the tailor kills 99 in a single blow, Uma Thurman killed 88 in Kill Bill – along with an assortment of bodyguards and specialized murderers. The body count in John Wick seems to closely rival Tarantino’s send up of violent thriller movies, except there are two other specialist hit men in John Wick – Marcus (Willem Dafoe), his former mentor and friend, now hired by Viggo as John’s executioner to protect Josef, and the more interesting and most comic figure in the movie, Perkins (Adrianne Palicki), the female assassin. As in Kill Bill, the thrust of the film supposedly comes from the depth of John’s vengeance as well as the breadth of his murderous skills, but with respect to the motivation, as the pursued cowardly bully, Josef, says in the most unintended comic line of the movie before being dispatched by John Wick in revenge for Daisy’s death – all this because I killed your f…ing bitch dog?
Since most of John Wick is a flashback of John’s fallout with Viggo over John’s intention to kill Josef in revenge for Daisy’s death, one might have expected the film to have been a flic about character using the genre of a revenge thriller, but instead John Wick turned towards stale plot devices of a dozen violent predecessors to hold the action scenes together. The violence is displayed in graphic detail without the gore of the 2010 Kick-Ass and without any indication of any theme such as the one Cronenberg provided on violence. There is no hint that we in the audience have any role or responsibility for this violence.
This is not true of Nightcrawler directed by another novice director, but experienced screenwriter, Dan Gilroy, who also wrote the script. That movie is a thriller chiller on a whole different plane than John Wick. Just as tow truck operators listen to police dispatchers to learn the location of accident scenes, nightcrawlers use the same frequencies for the same reason but for a different purpose — to get video tapes of the victims to sell to TV stations. If John Wick leaves you on the edge of your seat with the frenetic pace of the slaughters, the ghoulish Nightcrawler worms its way into your intestines as Lou Bloom, played with outstanding brilliance by Jake Gyllenhaal, progresses from a scavenger of scrap to his rise to eminence as the ironic poster boy for entrepreneurship, self-help and a Műnchhausian dirty determination to raise himself by his own bootstraps to a business CEO in a media-crazed age. Nightcrawler is a worthy successor to The History of Violence.
Though Nightcrawler does not adopt Cronenberg’s Hobbesian metaphysic that violence is an integral element in our DNA, the love of violence of Lou is perceived as simply a byproduct of a consumer rather than a producer culture of violence reinforced by media news that caters to our lowly tastes. The news director in Nightcrawler, Nina (played by Gilroy’s wife, Rene Russo as a paean to Faye Dunaway in Network but with more wrinkles and eye shadow) sums it up: “If it bleeds, it leads.” The supreme achievement is to broadcast a screaming woman with her throat cut running in panic in a quiet upscale neighbourhood. On many stations, the mantra of seeing a woman bleed in a safe suburb infiltrated by urban violence has become the marker for the appeal of much local evening TV news. [Incidentally, the movie also includes Gilroy’s brother Tony as a producer and his brother John as the editor, a documented refutation that the film is autobiographical in any way.]
It is not so much that we secretly crave what we publicly condemn, but that our passion for consuming visions of violence propel media news in a system founded on the need for advertisers to cater to our tastes. Nightcrawler does not adopt the discarded theory that violence on television breeds violence in the streets, but rather adopts the position that the taste for violence in the streets leads to the emphasis on violence on our screens that, in turn, allows a psychopathic petty criminal with a degree of intelligence sharpened into self-learning through home schooling, spouting the potted business mantras of his auto-didact education, to rise in the cut-throat business world to create his own nascent business empire.
Even though Jake’s character, Lou Bloom, unlike John Wisk, never acts directly as the executioner, he brilliantly sets the scenes for the execution of others – whether his competitor in the nightcrawling video business, the cops or his own employee, Rick, played with hysterical passivity by Riz Ahmed. Lou progresses from a chaser of news to a shaper and composer of news to a creator of the news itself. He becomes his own director to a racing beat but without the frenetic energy of John Wick. In the process, we gradually learn the depth of his madness and the breadth to which this form of psychopathy has penetrated. Jake Gyllenhaal increasingly stares with concentrated attention and gleeful penetration with eyes sunk in deep sockets exaggerated by his loss of 28 pounds to play the part. He sees what we evidently want to see but look away when it is in front of our eyes. However, when presented through the media of television, we watch with unblinking and mesmerized fervor.
On 14 June 2014, Nancy and I arrived in Dublin just in time for the hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday. If Leopold Bloom, a Christian convert who was a blend of wandering Jew and the Greek hero Ulysses, walked the streets of Dublin observing and describing his fellow Dubliners with the distance and detachment of a Jewish eye over a 24-hour period, Lou in contrast to Leopold stalks and rides the avenues of the nighttime in film noir Los Angeles, not to describe its life, but its violence and love affair with death. If New York in John Wisk is gloomy with haze and pouring rain, the night air of Los Angeles is murky and bleak. Each movie has numerous stock scenes – in John Wisk, a nightclub, a church which is a front for the mobster’s bank, a depopulated industrial remnant presumably in New Jersey, and the choice of the iconic scenes of Los Angeles of Venice Beach, the LA airport, palm trees and oil derricks – the selection seems more deliberate in Nightcrawler for that movie is as much about Los Angeles as it is about an individual nutcase.
If Leopold Bloom in Ulysses was modest, Lou Bloom has chutzpah in spades, even if there is no suggestion that he is Jewish. However, just as his namesake did in Dublin, Lou unveils the mundane and the intimate of daily life, but its very dark side. If Leopold was a consumer of inner organs of beasts and fowls, stuffed roast heart and liver slices, Lou is a visual consumer of human carrion, of human hearts and bleeding internal organs. Both Leopold and Lou are driven by their appetites and both have a penchant for voyeurism, but Lou’s appetites have morphed into the macabre while Leopold, even as he frets over the affair of his wife, Molly, and the death of both his son and his friend, always exhibits a sense of humanism and tolerance. Lou, in contrast to Leopold, is a loner, and in contrast to the deranged Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, is, paradoxically, gregarious. Lou is a gregarious loner in a world where madness has simply become ordinary corporate practice. In this movie we are purportedly exposed to the real Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank.
If Leopold detests violence, Lou is smitten with it. And unlike John Wick, there is a real progression rather than simple repetition in the type and scale of the violence. In radical French philosophy, Leopold Bloom is the archetype of loss of identity and political apathy for a nihilistic mass contemporary culture. Lou Bloom is its apotheosis where the divine has become truly satanic. While Leopold always thinks in the poetic English of the Irish, Lou speaks with the metronomic patter of managerial textbook jargon that reveals its ghoulish qualities so that it truly and literally becomes wickedly funny.
In all its horror and action, it is a very comic film.