Movies to watch in quarantine: ‘Nightcrawler,’ ‘Killing of a Sacred Deer,’ ‘The Tiger Hunter’

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Intro: Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this time is super stressful for a lot of people, and many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every week. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times! 

(Photo: Open Road Films)

“Nightcrawler” (Released in 2014; watched by us on Sept. 3, 2020)

A drama by Dan Gilroy. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

We watched “Uncut Gems” last week, which was described to both of us ahead of time as a highly stressful and constantly anxiety-inducing experience — imagine the Carta reviews for “MATH 51.” While I can see such a review for “Uncut Gems,” I will say it definitely applies to “Nightcrawler.”

Louis “Lou” Bloom, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is a shady individual seeking a job. He eventually gets one, becoming a “stringer” — a freelancer who patrols city streets during the night to record traffic accidents and violent crimes, then sells it to local news stations. He then hires an assistant named Rick, who is incredibly desperate for money. As the “business” begins to expand, the two take on higher stakes, and Lou’s already askew moral conscience begins to fully corrupt.

I do not know how to describe “Nightcrawler” in a written form — a failure which is not to say I do not have reactions to this movie; I have some very strong reactions, but they mostly consisted of me screaming violently into my phone screen. Everything about this movie is terrifying to me — especially our lead, who strikes me as a horrifying yet entirely realistic monster who I could easily run into if I accidentally choose a sketchy internship. So do excuse me if I spend most of my word count talking about Lou — there is a lot to unpack with this creep. 

Lou’s most positive trait — his ambition — seems to, paradoxically, fuel his most horrendous actions. He gives off the vibe of somebody who brings a boxcutter with them to a job fair, in case the need should arise. This dude would murder to up his LinkedIn game. It is one of the most frightening things I can think of, and as a student and soon-to-be college graduate, I say it without a lick of sarcasm.

It is made obvious that Lou does not care for anybody but himself and his “company.” He will do anything for power, like a mosquito will do anything for blood. He starts off parasitic, invading the space of first responders and shoving his camera into the faces of bloodied victims — but it intensifies from here. Lou naturally escalates his actions to move up the corporate ladder. He makes moderately large chunks of money selling his footage while he pays his assistant below minimum wage (constantly berating and manipulating him the whole time). He begins to seek specific and misleading narratives, valuing crimes against wealthy white people by minorities to amplify local racist paranoia — by demand of the news station he is selling to; he is not the only foul actor. Lou tampers with crime scenes to create “juicier” narratives. He even begins to withhold crucial information from the police — some of which likely would have saved lives. Lou, oddly enough, does not even seem to be motivated by materialistic or monetary gain — or, not solely, as we never really see him upgrade his standard of living. He seems to value, first and foremost, his reputation as a businessman who’s needed, even taking some pleasure in being interrogated by the police. Lou finds an identity with his sick, corrupt business, and he finds meaning in being the guy in charge. He strives to be irreplaceable. 

But once Lou does begin to receive the power he so hungrily craves, he abuses it. Not only does he pressure the morning news director he sells to into having sex with him, but he even intentionally sabotages his assistant, Rick, when he begins to pick up some of his own behavior. Lou becomes even willing to profit over his partner’s death — no, he takes pride in it. To Lou, it is just part of the hussle. What is scarier, however, is how “Nightcrawler” seems to constantly reward Lou for his ruthlessness. By the end of the movie, this little villain gets everything he’s ever wanted — including a full team of interns to do his bidding, and maybe even pick up a thing or two from their boss. The world, dear reader, is not safe. 

If you cannot tell by now, “Nightcrawler” is anything but a feel-good, optimistic movie, and it does not pull any punches. It explores how selfishness and greed can be rewarded, and consequently amplified, by consumer demand and other, self-serving companies (especially in the news scene), and the movie does not offer any solutions. If you’re into a different take on monster movies, look no further than “Nightcrawler” — one of the scariest I have ever seen. 

Nitish:

“Nightcrawler” is a fascinating movie. It’s partly a character study of a nocturnal opportunist with a perverse fascination with death. Jake Gyllenhaal brings Lou Bloom to life as a sort of human flesh fly, buzzing around corpses with a parasitic fascination, selling video footage of carnage to morning news hosts so that they can drum up fear and boost their ratings. But “Nightcrawler” is also an interrogation of the epicaricacy (yeah, I used a thesaurus — I’m a badass *puts on sunglasses*) of the American TV–watching public.

The plot is pretty simple at its core. Lou Bloom, a grifter familiar with the underbelly of L.A., manages to come across a team of stringers recording the aftermath of a car crash to sell to a news crew. He decides he’s found his calling. And the rest of the movie is Lou’s building his business from the ground up.

I’ll start with the main drawing point for the film: Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s been one of my favorite actors for a while now, with phenomenal performances in “Enemy,” “Prisoners,” “Nocturnal Animals,” “Zodiac,” “Brokeback Mountain” and many others. Here, he turns Lou Bloom into a strange monster. Lou’s pleasures are simple, brutal and vile. He watches people in car accidents with the unrestrained joy of a kid in a candy shop. He pressures the news director with whom he works into having sex with him. But Lou Bloom is house-trained — his sociopathy is hidden under a carefully managed exterior. Gyllenhaal plays him with a sort of almost-beguiling charm, with eyes and a smile too wide to be convincing. Lou tells us he has taken a series of business classes, and as a result his dialogue frequently devolves into the aphorisms that you’d find plastered on the feed of your high-school friend who fell into a multi-level marketing scheme. Lou is a parasite in an ill-fitting suit of a human. 

But I think, ultimately, the most interesting work that the movie does isn’t associated with Lou, but instead is associated with the rest of us. The laws of supply and demand dictate that for the violent footage to have any value to a news service, news-watchers need to be invested in watching it. Gilroy’s script is cynical on this account. Stabbings of people of color are dismissed as ordinary occurrences that don’t merit time on the news, whereas stabbings of white people? In the suburbs? Where the viewers live? That’s dangerous. And all across the world, people tune in. “Nightcrawler” seems to be exposing a sort of perverse voyeurism at the heart of our culture.

Gilroy cleverly points out this culture. When he films Lou filming victims of violence, he does so by keeping the victims out of frame until we can see the results of Lou’s careful shot selection on the screen of his laptop or on the news the next morning. At one point, Lou drags a body into the path of a headlight to make for a more visually appealing shot. Ethics fade into aesthetics.

And Gilroy is sort of begging the question, Are we in the wrong for watching this movie, for enjoying a film about sadism and violence? I don’t know, and I’m hardly in a position to judge as an action-movie junkie whose favorite sport is boxing. Gilroy is doing much more than crafting a compelling, dark tale. He’s interrogating the ethics of a media that turns people’s pain into a commodity, an enterprise that Gilroy himself is participating in.

All in all, “Nightcrawler” is a fascinating movie that poses intriguing questions. A must-watch.

(Photo: A24)

“Killing of a Sacred Deer” (Released in 2017; watched by us on Sept. 5, 2020)

A psychological thriller by Yorgos Lanthimos. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

Oh, will you look at that, dear reader: We have another film by Yorgos Lanthimos, which means this recap is about to get weird and uncomfortable.

But, I don’t mean it in a bad way … I think. Sort of. 

The first movie Nitish and I reviewed together was “The Lobster,” and we both agreed it was quite good. What stood out to us was Lanthimos’s unusual directorial and writing style, which made even the simplest of human interactions seem surreal and unnatural — but these decisions were not purely stylistic. The middle-school-dance chemistry of its characters aided the storytelling because it emphasized the creepiness (and awkwardness) of its apocalyptic future, in which everybody is forced to mate or be turned into some animal. Did I mention this was a strange movie!?

I bring up this earlier film because I wish to stall. You see, dear reader, I am unsure what to make of this movie, so instead of outright recommending or not recommending “Killing of a Sacred Deer,” I hope to simply weed through my critical contradictions and determine the source behind my confusion. If you would like a spoiler-proof version of this review, either read Nitish’s (inevitably more positive) version below mine, or skip to the final paragraph. I feel I cannot truly dissect my opinions on this movie without getting specific.

“Killing of a Sacred Deer” follows Steven, a heart surgeon, as well as his family, consisting of wife, Anna; older daughter, Kim; and younger son, Bob. Steven also develops a strange friendship with a teenage boy named Martin, an equally strange boy (who, in this relationship between a middle-aged man and a high-schooler, somehow manages to be the creepy one) struggling to cope with his father’s death. Secretly, Martin blames Steven for the incident, so he enacts a sort of curse on the family, foretelling that everybody other than Martin will die by some illness until Steven himself chooses one of them to kill. A life for a life.

As per the Yorgos Lanthimos brand, nobody at all feels remotely human. It seems like the kind of movie an alien would write about a bunch of robots pretending to be human — except the writers, the actors and even the audience are also tripping hardcore on some undisclosed hallucinogen. Everybody’s dialogue is overly precise, and all of the actors’ deliveries are incredibly monotone. Kim, for instance, recounts her date with Martin, proclaiming dully to Steven that, “I laughed so hard I hurt my ribs,” with all the emotion of a roomba. Steven randomly brings up his daughter’s menstrual cycle to people (and, so does the daughter, so at least it’s mutual?). Martin and Bob, on meeting for the first time, have a prolonged discussion about armpit hair, which both are oddly competitive over. And I admit, this next clause probably makes me a horrible person — but I struggle to see how the father flopping his supernaturally paralyzed son on the floor multiple times for a whole minute to get him to walk, then talking to said child about masturbating — while he still lays on the floor — then, still with that flat delivery, threatening to take his electric razor, shave off the boy’s hair, and make him eat it — “I will literally make you eat your hair; I’m not kidding” — was meant to be taken seriously. 

It is not new. I felt the same in “The Lobster,” and there it added to the plot. Meanwhile, I feel this strangeness almost worked here, and on paper it seemed like a perfect fit. “Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a horror film, and all of my above observations at least put me on edge. But, I think here is where I begin to develop some issues: If everything in this world becomes spooky and unsettling, there is no point of contrast, which I think blunts a lot of the movie’s attempts to be scary or intense. Humans are essentially narcissistic characters — they need human elements to latch on to empathize. Quoting, sort of, Syndrome from “The Incredibles,” “When everybody is [spooky], nobody will be.” 

In my opinion, for Yorgos Lanthimos’s unique brand of storytelling and directing to work, everything needs to be exactly right. But there are only so many times when I can hear Kim, with all the passion of the voice through my McDonald’s drive-thru, say, “I’m sorry, Martin, I just love you so much,” before I begin to ask questions any storyteller should want to avoid: At what point is something stylistic, and at what point is it just bad? No matter how intentional a choice may be, that won’t necessarily mean it will be a good choice.

This reasoning led me to a harsh sort of conclusion: “The Lobster” was an excellent movie — lightning in a bottle. “Killing of a Sacred Deer” proves that lightning does not strike in the same place twice.

But, then I got to the last 40 minutes, where the horror truly comes alive — and suddenly everything began to click. The cinematography, editing and score — which have been consistently phenomenal — take the reins and begin to tell the story. Martin becomes an engaging horror villain, in large part due to his mundane weirdness — his speech about spaghetti should not have worked, but it did. And I even began to realize how interesting this premise is — once the family starts to turn against each other. Now that we are in an unfamiliar situation, the weirdness suddenly began to work for me. And though I still maintain that it suffers from some bad deliveries and dialogue — perhaps an explanation for this sudden improvement is that everyone starts talking a whole lot less — I did not mind these issues that, before, were starting feel like murder.

So, here is my ultimate takeaway: Once “Killing of a Sacred Deer” finds circumstances that suit its inherent artificiality (which happens, I believe, solely in the third act), it works very well. For the rest of the movie, I believe it did not find these right circumstances. While, despite some excellent elements, I would struggle to call this movie a good one, I cannot deny that at least something about it seems to work.

Nitish:

Our very first movie, “The Lobster,” was a Yorgos Lanthimos movie. Mark and I found it unsettling, thought-provoking and incredibly impressive. So I was excited to get to watch and review another movie by Lanthimos. I went in expecting “Killing of a Sacred Deer” to be an intriguing psychological thriller or a character drama, and that’s how it started — but it ended up being a devastatingly effective horror movie. In fact, I would go so far as to say that “Killing” is my favorite horror movie thus far.

Lanthimos sets the stage delicately and carefully. The characters’ dialogue is unnaturally stilted, with a familiar rhythm to that in “The Lobster.” The acting is superb, maintaining a strange calm with clear horror under the surface, like a decade-old house with corpses stowed away behind the egg-white wallpaper. Lanthimos drip-feeds us important information. We learn about Colin Farrell’s character, a surgeon named Steven Murphy, and the fact that he hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol in three years. We learn about his relationship with a teenager named Martin, played perfectly by Barry Keoghan. We learn that the relationship between the two is somehow secretive, but we aren’t shown anything that would make us think that Steven is exploiting Martin. Martin is introduced to the family, he then becomes friends with Steven’s daughter Kim, going on walks with her. But with every new shot that Lanthimos shows us, he manages to crank up the unease just a little more.

For what feels like the first half of the movie, we’re not exactly sure what we’re watching, or why we’re watching it. But Lanthimos manages to cram every frame with a pervasive sense of unease — eerie music, strangely sterile shots, a weirdly stiff script, uncomfortably restrained acting and the slow peeling back of the plaster to show us the carcasses and the bones that are the foundation of the plot. He’s keeping us on board the ship as we’re carried on to an unknown destination, but also convincing us that we should jump off and brave the sharks to maintain our sanity. It’s genuinely masterful directing.

Martin reveals the central conceit of the film halfway through the movie. I don’t think I would spoil the movie if I revealed it to you, but the moment of revelation is so wonderfully off-kilter that I think you should experience it for yourself. From that point onward, “Killing of a Sacred Deer” turns into an absolutely transcendent horror experience. Steven’s family turns on each other in horrifying fashion, and we get to see decent people trapped in a horrible nightmare. There are no jumpscares. There is no random gore for shock value. Instead, Lanthimos shows us the slow-motion balkanization of a family — a Hieronymus Bosch portrait of hell disguised as a stock photo of an upper-middle-class white household. Lanthimos and Filippou’s dialogue is austere and stark, and they manage to conjure up moments of astonishingly cold brutality as mothers turn on children and siblings turn on each other. 

I don’t want to give too much away, but if you don’t find yourself horrified and driven to the brink of madness by “Killing of a Sacred Deer,” you are made of much sterner stuff than I. “Killing of a Sacred Deer” is my perfect horror movie, ably converting an off-kilter house into the staging ground of mind-melting psychological torture. Watch it!

(Photo: Shout! Factory)

“The Tiger Hunter” (Released in 2016; watched by us on Sept. 7, 2020)

A comedy by Lena Khan. We watched it on Netflix!

Mark:

I confess, dear reader, that the only reason I suggested “The Tiger Hunter” was for its lead actor, Dani Pudi. I am not usually the type to put stock in a movie solely for its performances. I am generally more interested in things like editing, score and writing — but when this wonderful man played Abed from “Community” (easily the most incredible addition to an incredible television show), I could not help but let my normie-side show. 

“The Tiger Hunter” follows Sami Malik in the 1970s, the young adult son of his village’s beloved tiger hunter. Now, he is an aspiring engineer with two main goals in life: to pursue a similar level of greatness to his father, and to win the heart of his childhood sweetheart, Ruby (and the approval of her drill-sergeant father). So, he immigrated from India to the United States, where he finds that the American Dream is not as accessible as he had expected.

My previous lack of information about this movie proved to be quite beneficial. Just based on the premise alone, I would not have expected much out of “The Tiger Hunter,” and I probably would have never suggested it if I were not such a sitcom dork. If I am being honest, this movie technically isn’t all that much beyond a charming comedy movie. But, I did end up seeing it, and my life has been made a little better because of it. It is a charming film which personally spoke to me, injecting my cold, Gen-Z veins with some much-needed optimism.

“The Tiger Hunter” explores the perspective of its lead as he struggles to pursue success. To Sami, success means claiming a successful engineering job in a microwave manufacturing company and moving into a grand home — or, at the very least, a comfortable home. Instead, Sami arrives in America and immediately gets his expected, high-level job taken away, forcing him to start as a draftsman and work his way up the corporate ladder; he scrambles to receive a promotion before his visa expires in 30 days. Also, Sami, far from living in the lap of luxury, is forced to share a small apartment with 13 other immigrants, each with technical degrees but under-employed.

In some alternate universe, “The Tiger Hunter” could have been a grittier, more cynical and (let’s call a spade a spade) more realistic film. In its current incarnation, the final product creates a sort of fairy-tale ending in which Sami — and his other immigrant roommates — produces a successful and non-explosive microwave, and the company hires them as full-time engineers. It is sweet to an admittedly absurd degree, especially when compared to the harsher realities of the American immigrant experience in the 1970s.

That said, I do believe the movie we got is special, largely due to its optimism and message. Be warned, dear reader, about some slight spoilers: I resonated with Sami’s story and his attempts to live up to his father’s legacy. But, when he later finds out that his father’s greatness came not from his career but from his ability to connect with the villagers, he begins to find true fulfillment — while his previous attempts to pursue solely rank and gain just alienated those around him. It is a wholesome revelation, and caps our protagonist’s journey very well. The twist is realized even better by some lines of dialogue littered throughout the beginning of the movie that made this revelation obvious in hindsight. Like it was for Sami, the truth was right in front of our faces.

I would struggle to consider “The Tiger Hunter” among the best of our marathon. Yes, it is a humorous and sweet story, and critically there is only so much a movie like this one can do. But from a personal standpoint, the simplest of stories can do a lot. Its message regarding the definition of success and companionship is something that meant a lot to me as I consider a gap year and struggle to find internship opportunities. It helped me put aside the nagging voice in my head that suggested that I have not gone anywhere. The fact that I am doing this column with a good friend of mine (despite his many incorrect opinions) shows I have gained connections worth keeping, and there are many more I intend on carrying with me. “The Tiger Hunter” was an important reminder of what success really means to me, and I am very grateful for that. And Dani Pudi is great, too.

Nitish:

“The Tiger Hunter” is an unassuming, easy-to-watch story about being true to yourself as part of the pursuit of happiness. The acting is good enough, the script is corny but good enough, and the direction doesn’t have any real stylistic flair but it’s good enough. Yet I found myself enjoying this movie the whole way through. Most importantly, “The Tiger Hunter” makes the case for itself: It isn’t a tale of great men with titanic ambitions, but rather a tale of finding happiness in the simple, quiet ways. And director Lena Khan’s debut film manages to figure out a way to make you happy. With everything going on in the world, I think you might need to watch this. I know I did. 

“The Tiger Hunter” focuses on Sami Malek — acted ably by Dani Pudi — a young engineer who wants to move to America and become a great man like his father, the eponymous hunter who kept his village safe. He works away in his village, helping everyone with their engineering needs, smothering his neighbors with his boundless kindness. But soon he sees a chance to come to the land of opportunity: A microwave company in Chicago called Graydion writes back to him, asking him if he would like to come work for them. When he comes to America, he finds it’s not exactly the paradise laden with riches that he had envisioned. Instead of entering the profession as a top-shelf engineer, he finds himself in the basement as a draftsman. At first he’s dismayed, as this station is one beneath his talents — but he plies his craft in obscurity for a chance at a valuable prize: a childhood love, Ruby. 

Ruby’s father is a ferocious general in the Indian army who is seeking to marry her to an American doctor with a “castle.” Sami, living in an apartment with 13 other down-on-their-luck immigrant engineers, has no such resources or fame. So he grinds away, trying to turn himself into a “professional American” by buying Graydion’s upper-level engineers tacos as he tries to worm his way into a better job. But the task ahead of Graydion is too large: they have to make a microwave that doesn’t explode. Sami fishes a malfunctioning prototype microwave out of the trash and starts to work on it obsessively, with the hope that if he fixes it he’ll be able to get into a senior engineering position.

Hijinks ensue. Sami has to delicately balance trying to improve his economic station with the stealthy task of trying to keep this hidden from the general. There’s the standard romcom “fake it til you make it” plot, and, of course, Sami doesn’t make it in time. And not only does he put himself in grievous danger of losing the love of his life — he finds it increasingly difficult to fill his father’s unquestionably great shoes.

And of course, there’s a resolution. Sami recognizes that true greatness is not wealth or ambition but simply living each day happily with good companionship. Greatness isn’t turning yourself into something else, but being who you are. It’s utterly and completely predictable. But predictable isn’t bad. I found “The Tiger Hunter” was ultimately executed well, with a poignant (if a bit rote) message. Thorny issues — immigration, racism, the classism associated with the arranged marriage — are vaguely gestured at but not dealt with. Perhaps there’s a better version of this movie that’s a bit darker, a bit more thematically ambitious. But I’ll take a page from Khan’s fable and simply try to be satisfied with what I ended up with.

I echo Mark’s message as well: “The Tiger Hunter” has a bit of unexpected resonance right now. Mark and I are both seniors, and we’re both trying to turn our Stanford education into careers. I’m writing this review with Handshake and a to-do list longer than my arm in the background. This would be stressful under the most forgiving of circumstances. Considering we are amid an incredibly consequential presidential election, a global pandemic that has taken close to a million lives, a huge economic recession, a massive spate of wildfires and a national reckoning over the U.S. history of racism — well, my life is more than a little stressful. But “The Tiger Hunter” reminded me that the smaller things count, too. Even things like this movie column — where I just take up column space lampooning my friend’s terrible taste in film — matter. It was a reminder that I needed. And if you’re feeling as stressed as I am, “The Tiger Hunter” might be what you need, too.

Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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