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Nightcrawler

By Karol Krok

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Jake Gyllenhaal showed quite a bit more range over the past decade than many would expect from him. Famous for his leading cowboy part in Brokeback Mountain and few other pictures, he always seemed to be perfectly suited for roles of mild-mannered and nice people. Which makes his electric performance in Nightcrawler almost shocking – in a good way. He plays Lou Bloom, a desperate man, who ends up reporting accidents as a crime journalist in Los Angeles in pursuit of quick money. Of course, this shady business turns into an obsession, which the actor explores with real finesse. Early response to this film (directed by Dan Gilroy) was great and it is likely to get some attention towards the busy award season.

James Newton Howard came back to his orchestral roots with this years’ Maleficent. The score was very well received by listeners and seemed to announce a renaissance for composer who, in many people’s opinion, lost some of his mojo after abandoning melodic and acoustic writing in favour of more eclectic modern sound. Given this context, people started to anticipate Nightcrawler with considerable excitement. And, of course, they are subscribing themselves for a big disappointment for there is no real room for sprawling symphonic treatment in this dark and disturbing thriller.

As it turns out, the composer decided to take a slightly different route – not quite The Bourne Legacy some fans would expect. Nightcrawler does offer a very urban sound, perhaps in the same kind of sense that Howard Shore employed recently with his intriguing Maps to the Stars – they both paint an aural landscape of Los Angelses with the same distorted and unreal nocturnal sound palette for synths and guitars (‘Nightcrawler’ and ‘Driving at Night’). This is a perfect type of accompaniment if one tries to imagine travelling through busy city around midnight.  Although, Howard makes also use of some more familiar orchestral tools.

James Newton Howard employs string section of Philharmonia Orchestra to provide an emotional element in several key spots. The motoric elements provided by this ensemble are utilised well in ‘Lou’s Inspired’ and ‘Sell the Bike’. Similarly to Zodiac (another film Gyllenhaal starred in), they seem to represent main character’s inner obsession and drive. ‘Day of the Night’ is another  fast paced piece. We don’t get to hear London musicians in greater capacity until another brief ‘Waiting’ cue later on. The clarinet is another acoustic voice heavily featured in Nightcrawler (‘Making the News’). Typically used in comedies, it’s nice to see someone using this instrument in more imaginative context.

Given the film’s subject matter, there are bound to be some bleaker moments in which not much seems to be happening musically. They are perhaps a tad too introspective and atmospheric to be truly enjoyable on album – the horror-like droning of ‘Entering the House’ is a good example. The ‘Loder Crashes’ is another one. However, at the end of the latter, exciting percussion takes over and puts a listener out of the lethargic state. The rhythmic section – both live and sampled – seems to form an important ingredient of Lou Bloom’s dastardly scheming (‘The First Accident’ and ‘The First Night’). Things start really cooking when it is joined by electric guitars in ‘Lou and Rick on a Roll’ and ‘The Wrong Way’.

One of Howard’s greatest strengths (and his trademark) was his simple piano writing. While there’s not a terrible lot of melody to be found in Nightcrawler, the domestic-sounding instrument is present and offers some basic emotion this dark score occasionally needs. Coupled with lovely but subtle clarinet, it creates a dreamy  atmosphere in ‘KWLA’  – especially as both dissolve among the synthesized parts. Some tracks recall more ethereal passages known from many Thomas Newman scores (‘Lou’s Philosophy’ and ‘Nina and Frank’). ‘The Shootout’ introduces in a synthesised chorus which brings  a surprisingly warm closure to this score – there’s an almost angelic quality to this piece but filtered through the same urban stylistics as that preceded it. ‘Lou’s Free’ brings back all the familiar score’s infredients – piano, rhythmic strings, clarinet and percussion – all together in one enjoyable brief cue. Finally, ‘If It Bleeds It Leads’ features a youthful rock-like coda.

It’s a functional and well-crafted music for its subject matter. However, there’s not a great amount of connective tissue to make it distinguishable on a 51-minute long soundtrack album. Perhaps if listeners were to remove some less potent material from their playlists, a nice 20-minute collection of cues would represent James Newton Howard’s eclectic intentions more successfully. It’s nice to see this composer revisit some of the styles he’s not worked with since very early in his career. However, this type of score would be best appreciated within the context of its film. Which, I hear, is very much worth watching.

Nightcrawler is out now from Lakeshore Records

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