James Newton Howard
On the July 25, 2000 episode of Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Conan decided to play a prank on his guest that evening, Harrison Ford. Ford, whose “no bullshit” personality both on and off the silver screen has preserved his deadpan chops to this day, was to recreate his ever-dependable intense face, once under eerie music and then again with “slightly different music.” Ford’s first attempt went off like gangbusters but the second, a grimace to a lively jazz number, forced the infamously gruff actor to hold back a smile. (You can watch the segment on Funny or Die at the 0:55 mark.) Ford quickly recovered but his subtle slip up was a refreshing bit of transparency and revealed something about the grisled man behind Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Jack Ryan: in that moment, he didn’t know how to react.
James Newton Howard is a few lightyears from reaching Harrison Ford’s “no bullshit” coolness, but the composer has found himself in a similar crisis of creative existentialism in Nightcrawler. The directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler follows the meteoric and morally questionable rise of Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a wide-eyed beanpole of a crime journalist whose only journalistic pursuits amount to pointing his video camera at flaming car crashes and stab wound victims bleeding out on stretchers, and then selling the footage to the late night news program. Bloom answers the doubts and criticisms of those around him by spouting self-help speak and, as expected in a film where the main character sees people as tools for his own aggrandizement, Nightcrawler grazes morally questionable ground with its ostensible antihero.
Gilroy populates his opening credits with snippets of the modern Los Angeles cityscape, and Howard envisions these streetlights and neon signs as decorations on the world’s largest “HELP WANTED” billboard. Thus, his title theme is undeniably hopeful. A guitar’s blue-ish metallic timbre rings out with a clean and reflective sheen, as if these empty streets are begging to be populated. It’s the city’s welcoming embrace, and while the cue has an errant drop of darkness, the shimmering production makes those brief touches just the first step on an ascent up to the City of Angels.
Howard beefs up this optimism in cues like “Pictures on the Fridge” but it’s never clear whether his theme’s slow swell is swallowing us up or spitting something out. Perhaps Lou is a product of his environment rather than a casualty claimed by it. Like the main title’s optimism, Howard’s music endears Lou’s misanthropic gestures as wondrous gifts. “Sell the Bike” and “Making the News” feature a ruminating piano under wavy lower strings before a clarinet and xylophone add pensive introspection. As Lou steals a beach bum’s bike and pawns it off for camera equipment, Howard scores it like a moment of inspiration. The latter sections here are a pennywhistle away from Danny Elfman, but Louis Bloom is a far cry from solving equations on a college blackboard.
To be fair, neither Gilroy nor Howard are obligated to co-opt Nigthcrawler into a morality play, and some moments outright cheer for Lou’s antipathy. “Lou and Rick on a Roll” beefs up one of too many montage sequences with sludgy guitar and overproduced percussion not unlike Ramin Djawadi’s rock-infused Iron Man. Like “Sell the Bike” or the tripped out, garbled crescendo of “Edit on the Hood,” this is music that paints character growth in big dumb strokes and with utterly disregard for Lou’s seedy business operations. When Howard returns to his titles once more in “Moving the Body,” the same spacey guitar that once signaled Los Angeles’ open arms buttresses a scene where our intrepid journalist drags a dead body from a smoking car wreck for a better camera angle. Now, Howard is doubling down, filling Lou’s warped creative headspace with another demented triumph and all set to aviator shades levels of cool — Drive‘s music video peaks imagined by a sociopath.
But what separates these glimpses into Lou’s psyche from the greater deterioration of L.A.? “Mount Wilson,” one of several establishing cues, kicks around dead air and gutteral rattles like yesterday’s trash. “Nina and Frank” borrows that same clarinet to paint Rene Russo and Kevin Rahm’s late night news directors as pitiable and exploitative workaholics. “Loder Crashes” and “The First Accident” both support grisly scenes that propel Lou’s career with propulsive, rusty clatters. Howard has failed to situate Lou inside of the seedy entertainment industry Nightcrawler wants to critique, yet he’s outlined a contempt for the film’s depiction of Los Angeles, a homogenized junkification of urban creep into suburban California.
Lopsidedness frustrates Nightcrawler and its climax. Lou’s pièce de résistance sees him a tail a pair of murder suspects before alerting police, all in the hopes of synthesizing a bloody shootout for big bucks. “Chinatown Express” is the ugliest James Newton Howard gets, stretching out notes for long sections of time and layering design element on top of design element for maximal atonality. Aesthetically, it’s a disgusting moment and Nightcrawler‘s only real scene of tension. But Lou’s positioning of camera angles is also morally repugnant, something the music qualifies for once. It’s a contradiction from the wax that Howard’s applied to Lou’s red Mustang, but is staging a shootout really more immoral than dragging a bloodied corpse into a Subaru’s smashed high beams?
Any answer to such a question apart from “no” wades into muddied waters of right and wrong, a conversation both this column and Nightcrawler are ill-equipped for. “The Newscast” and “Lou’s Inspired” both make attempts to complicate black-and-white moral absolutism with a clockwork-like battery of strings. With driving bass and cello, violins and viola creep upward from a minor progression to a major one before returning to an anxious key. Fusing dourness with what amounts to a Moneyball sequel’s “they’re winning now” montage, Nightcrawler’s sketchy lengths of ambition are reduced to a musical limbo somewhere in between sports drama and James Patterson novel. Howard sticks traces of ugly instrumentation in his buoyant pieces, but they play like the last scraps from the trash he’s pushed around. Don’t look there, look over here.
Nuance isn’t in the interest of Gilroy or even Gyllenhaal for that matter, whose dogged performance is magnetic but never complex. The dark joke of Lou Bloom is that he’s never not serious, and the score’s tone deafness shouldn’t be confused for tongue-in-cheek satire. Yet another main title refrain follows Lou’s bloody arrangement in “Chinatown Express,” but “The Shootout” completely guts the four minutes of tension that preceded it. Who’s on edge here? What’s at risk? There’s no whiplash from a bullet-splattered car chase through Koreatown because Howard’s only writing half of his music for us. When tasked with a narrative that’s part-satire, part-thriller, part-black comedy, part-psychological profile, Howard sounds like he’s composing in the moment, improvising scene-by-scene. The end result makes about as much sense as scowling at the Max Weinberg 7.