Two of the movies reviewed this month take complicated, even abstruse theories about the nature of time and space and make them understandable in the warmest human terms. The third takes the warm feelings of the first two movies—indeed, any warm feelings about the human heart and mind—and throws them back in the viewers’ faces. The Theory of Everything, Interstellar, and Nightcrawler are all eminently worth seeing, but it might be advisable to see Nightcrawler first, and let the other two serve as antidotes.
All three films are getting serious Oscar buzz, but James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything is getting the most because of Eddie Redmayne’s extraordinary performance as the great English physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. To the public, Hawking is at least as well-known for his disability—for fifty years he has been a victim of motor neuron disease, confined to a wheelchair and able to speak only through electronic means—as for his groundbreaking research into the nature of the Universe. It was Redmayne’s daunting task to portray both Hawking’s disease, as it developed incrementally, and his piercing intelligence. He succeeds magnificently on both counts. We gasp in sympathetic horror as Redmayne’s Hawking trips over his own feet for the first time and goes sprawling face-down on the sidewalk in a Cambridge quadrangle. We are increasingly sad for him as his disease progresses, but also increasingly admiring as the brilliant, witty glint in his eyes grows stronger, even as his body turns against him.
Based on Jane Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, The Theory of Everything is less the story of Hawking’s research than of his first marriage. Stephen and Jane (Felicity Jones) have major differences from the start. Jane, a student of medieval Spanish poetry, is devoutly Church of England, whereas Stephen says, “I have a problem with that whole celestial dictator thing.” No matter: during a fireworks display at a Cambridge celebration, Jane quotes the first sentence of the Book of Genesis to Stephen, and what they share becomes far more important than how they differ.
When Stephen’s illness becomes debilitating, Jane remains fiercely and impeccably devoted to him. Unfortunately, the time comes when love and devotion just aren’t enough. The Theory of Everything is essentially a poignant story of two people growing apart, without meaning or wanting to, as their needs gradually diverge. Nevertheless, the film ends optimistically, showing that caring and affection can survive the death of a marriage. Finely directed and acted, with Jones just as excellent as Redmayne but in a quieter way, The Theory of Everything is a touching glimpse into the private life of one of our greatest living scientists.
The theories of time and the cosmos advanced by Hawking and other physicists form the gist of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, a film that exceeds even Inception in size and ambition. What is truly great about Interstellar, however, is the way Nolan is able to use the theories involved to create a moving, persuasive human drama.
Interstellar begins in a dystopia of the not-too-distant future, with what is unfortunately a not-too-unbelievable premise. The world has turned into a dust bowl; the only remaining viable food source is corn, and that grows scarcer by the day. The climate change has also disrupted wireless communication; home computers, radios, televisions and cell phones are a thing of the past. Virtually the entire population has been compelled to become farmers, and the government does everything it can to discourage interest in technology, which is blamed for the worldwide famine. It goes so far as to publish as truth the old conspiracy theory that the U.S. faked the Apollo 11 moon shot in a ploy to bankrupt the Soviet Union in a useless space race.
Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former pilot and astronaut forced onto a farm with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) and two children, knows better. Though his neighbors don’t seem to notice the drones that fly across the county periodically, Cooper and his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) have become intensely interested in them. One night they follow a drone to its landing spot, inside a heavily fortified gate.
Behind the gate are the remnants of NASA, headed by Dr. Brand (Michael Caine). NASA must now work in top secret, because the public would storm it the way French peasants stormed the Bastille.
Dr. Brand tells Cooper he is working on what is now mankind’s only hope for survival. He has detected a wormhole near Saturn through which a spaceship can travel to another galaxy, in the hope of finding a habitable planet to which mankind can evacuate. One mission has already traveled through the wormhole; Dr. Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway) is ready to lead a second, and Dr. Brand asks Cooper to serve as pilot. There is a catch, however: the mission will take decades, with no guarantee of safe return.
Cooper agrees to go on the mission, to Murph’s inconsolable grief and anger. She sees her father’s decision as desertion, plain and simple. She needs her father as the world around her grows ever more frightening, particularly since she insists there are ghosts in her room, making strange noises and leaving cryptic messages in the all-pervasive dust.
From here, it is no fair to tell you any more of the plot. Some critics have come down hard on Interstellar, accusing it of both sentimentality and faulty science, while inevitably holding up 2001: A Space Odyssey as the shining example of a speculative space epic. I beg to differ. I’m no scientist, so I cannot compare the cosmology of Interstellar with that of 2001. I only know that Interstellar did not bore me for one second of its three-hour running time, which I cannot say about 2001. Both films attest to the glacial cold of outer space, but at least Interstellar cannot be accused of coldness in its story, or toward its characters. Nolan can be described as the anti-Kubrick; one need only point to TARS, Interstellar’s witty, self-sacrificing robot voiced by Bill Irwin, and compare it with the terrifying HAL.
To be sure, there is plenty that is terrifying in Interstellar, thanks partly to the awe-inspiring special effects and partly to a character introduced late in the story, played by a very well-known actor, who should be preserved as a surprise.
The greatness of Interstellar, however, is in how Nolan uses complicated theories of time and dimension to create scenes of unbearable suspense and poignancy between his characters. This is especially true in scenes toward the end shared by Cooper and Murph (now a grown woman played by Jessica Chastain). The point is plain: with all of mankind’s technological and scientific sophistication, the only thing that matters—and has ever mattered—is love.
Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler can also be said to make this point, but only by presenting a lead character who is the absolute negation of love. I had thought Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne would be the most evil character I’d encounter on screen this year, but Lou Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler, is at very least her match.
As the title implies, Lou is a nocturnal animal, and we first see him one late night cutting through a chain-link fence. Of course we think he’s cutting through the fence to get at something else, but it turns out he’s stealing the fence itself. He also roughs up a hapless security guard and steals his watch. Selling the fence and a few purloined manhole covers as scrap to an industrial plant, Lou makes a pitch to the plant manager that he is the sort of energetic, enterprising young man who would be an asset to any organization. As we discover in the course of the film, he is always making such pitches.
The plant manager cuts Lou off: “I’m not hiring a fuckin’ thief,” he says. Yet he buys what Lou has to sell. This lesson is not lost on Lou, and soon he discovers another commodity more valuable than scrap metal. Coming on a horrible traffic accident, he sees a freelance photographer (Bill Paxton) shooting video footage for sale to TV stations, and decides on the spot that he, too, can get in on that action. Lou obtains a camera (I will leave you to find out how) and prowls the night streets for any car crash, fire, or murder scene he can find.
Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news manager of the station to which Lou sells his footage, is both appalled and fascinated by him. Lou’s chutzpah and naked greed are enough to appall Saddam Hussein. Yet Nina—whose career is on the ropes because of low ratings, and who desperately needs the gory videos Lou provides—also sees in Lou the hunger she had when she started as a TV reporter. She sees him, to some extent, as her kindred spirit.
Meanwhile, Lou is doing well enough in his new venture to hire an assistant. This turns out to be Rick (Riz Ahmed), a destitute young man who is pathetically grateful to take the $30 per night Lou offers. If you get the idea that Lou can afford to pay Rick much more, you’re catching on.
To paraphrase an old joke, we’ve established who Lou Bloom is. All we’re doing now is waiting to see where, or at what, he will stop. The answer, of course, is nowhere and nothing. Lou and Rick are like Burke and an increasingly reluctant Hare, except that their commodity is not corpses, but videotapes of corpses.
Nightcrawler is a brilliantly filmed thriller, feeding off our collective urban nightmares. It is a family affair for Dan Gilroy: one of his brothers, Tony Gilroy (of Michael Clayton fame), co-produced the film; another brother, John Gilroy, wrote the screenplay; and Rene Russo is Dan Gilroy’s wife. Yet the talent you will remember from Nightcrawler is Jake Gyllenhaal, in a gloriously feral performance that channels both Norman Bates and The Sopranos’ Christopher Moltisanti. Losing 25 pounds to play Lou (on a frame that didn’t have 25 or even five pounds to lose), Gyllenhaal changes the very way he looks at a camera. Instead of the beagle puppy we’re used to seeing, it’s a jihadist—one motivated not by fanaticism but by avarice—who is staring at us. Speaking always and only in self-help and business clichés, Lou is bereft of empathy. People are either the means to what he wants, or obstacles to be removed.
Most critics have described Nightcrawler as a bloody satire of the insatiable need of TV news for sensational stories, and indeed it is that. On a higher level, however, it is one of the most ferocious condemnations ever of the American way of doing business. Lou Bloom is a man who provides a service that commands a high price, and he provides it faster than anyone else. If a few, or a few dozen, or a few thousand people have to die for him to provide it, so be it. If Hawking or Cooper ever got a load of Lou Bloom, they’d give up on saving the planet and join Mark Twain in condemning the damned human race.