by Matt Levine
Near the end of Nightcrawler, a mild-mannered TV news cameraman tells our mesmerizing antihero, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), that his biggest problem is that he doesn’t understand people. Soon thereafter, in one of the movie’s darkest moments (which is saying something), Louis viciously counters, “It’s not that I don’t understand people. It’s just that I don’t like them.” Indeed, Bloom understands people all too well—their bloodthirstiness hiding in civilized forms, their desire to feel delusively secure thanks to a misleading media, the perverse curiosity that leads violent suburban crimes to be the number-one ratings magnet for local news programs. These are the sensational themes that Nightcrawler deals with, and they’re not subtle; condemnations of the big, bag news media have existed since William Randolph Hearst, but that doesn’t stop the movie from hammering home its own. More fascinating in the film is our morbid protagonist, brought to frenetic life by Gyllenhaal, and an unpredictable style that blends dark comedy, LA noir suspense, and gritty action (including one of the better car chases of the year so far).
Director: Dan Gilroy
Producers: Jennifer Fox, Tony Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak
Writer: Dan Gilroy
Cinematographer: Robert Elswit
Editor: John Gilroy
Music: James Newton Howard
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Carolyn Gilroy, Kevin Rahm, Michael Hyatt, Price Carson
Premiere: September 5, 2014 — Toronto Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 31, 2014
US Distributor: Open Road Films
When we first meet Louis Bloom, even “petty thief” seems like too lofty a label: he’s snipping a chain-link fence on a construction site, hoping to resell the parts to contractors. It isn’t until he happens upon a fiery car crash on the freeway that Louis discovers his dismal calling: he spots TV news cameraman Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) hovering with his camera near two policemen as they pull a body from the wreckage. Seemingly aware for the first time that filming humans in extreme distress can be a viable occupation, he buys a cheap camcorder and police scanner (after selling a stolen bicycle to a pawn shop) and establishes his own fledgling news-footage service.
Though Nightcrawler emphasizes its serious themes, for much of the running time it’s a dark comedy—albeit a comedy in which the laughs feel grim and bitter coming out. Some of the funniest sequences arrive early in Louis’ new business venture, as he tactlessly shoves his way into volatile situations, cheap camera in tow, invoking the fury of both police officers and paramedics. He interviews the hapless Rick (Riz Ahmed), a mild-mannered homeless man desperate for a job, and heartlessly assigns him to an unpaid internship as his assistant, monitoring the police scanner and providing additional camera angles. Ahmed is a likable actor, and his ingratiating stoner-in-over-his-head predicament provides Nightcrawler with some welcome levity, at least at first. One can easily imagine the character of Rick coming off as preachy and condescending in another performer’s hands, but Ahmed wisely chooses to accentuate Rick's affable personality.
Thanks to fearless initiative and perversely good luck, Louis is able to snatch footage inside a suburban home that’s been ravaged by crossfire and sell it to a fifth-ranked local news program, the late show of which is headed by no-nonsense producer Nina (Rene Russo). Nina is exactly the kind of character you’d expect—a blunt, icy opportunist in the vein of Faye Dunaway’s character in Network, who will soon tell Louis that the best way to think of the news footage that draws viewers is as “a mad woman running down a suburban street with her throat cut.” (The movie’s message might not be subtle, but it’s definitely striking.) Russo doesn’t have a very complex character to work with, but she lends some personality to Nina and seems to be having fun in a role that borders occasionally on the farcical.
After Louis sells his first batch of footage, his business skyrockets: in the form of an unfortunately cheesy montage, he and Rick upgrade their equipment and Louis becomes even more reckless, at one point even moving a corpse in order to arrange a more pleasing composition. In the span of two months, they get their hands on a professional camera with a directional mic and Louis even splurges on a sporty Dodge SRT (channeling his inner Bullitt, maybe). Nightcrawler becomes more generic after Louis follows a shots-fired bulletin to a posh upper-class mansion where three bodies have been gunned to death; arriving before the police, Louis catches the gunmen on camera but is more interested in venturing inside once they leave, capturing breathtaking footage of the unwitting victims in their bloodstained, upper-class milieu. Assassins from a cocaine cartel and dogged police investigators soon appear, to the detriment of Nightcrawler’s speedy pacing, but the more clichéd elements of the film’s third act are balanced by some truly thrilling action scenes (and a climax that’s jarring in its all-out cynicism).
Helmed by first-time director (and frequent screenwriter) Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler is an impressive juggle. True, the idea that the news media is driven by profit above all else— or that tawdry violence attracts ratings, especially when it undermines middle- or upper-class security—is hardly earth-shattering. But the movie has the good sense to balance its seriousness with a nasty sense of humor (Bill Paxton, as Louis’ news-cameraman rival, is hilarious) and an embrace of the weird and unexpected, like an offhanded moment when Louis laughs robotically while watching The Court Jester. The overall effect is disorienting, but excitingly so—not unlike the schizophrenic experience of traveling through Los Angeles (where the film is aptly set) during its nocturnal hours.
Although James Newton Howard’s musical score is atrocious—it makes some disquieting moments almost triumphant and adds gratuitous synths and strings to supposedly chilling scenes—Robert Elswit’s cinematography is a starring feature, emphasizing the grit and grain of the city’s neon-saturated nightlife. (Paul Thomas Anderson’s longtime cinematographer, Elswit is maybe the best choice imaginable to bring to life Nightcrawler’s scary-funny-sad environment.) Even more exciting is Gilroy’s understanding of visual composition to not only enhance mood but to suggest ideas; the movie’s well-trodden themes seem fresher thanks to some unique evocations, including an unsettling scene in which Louis and Nina discuss their business partnership in almost erotic tones while video footage of a deceased colleague plays on a screen in between them—a composition surprisingly similar to a scene in Michael Haneke’s Cache. Nightcrawler moves along at a breakneck pace and often indulges its campy, parodic undertones, but there is intelligence in its approach and a refreshing lack of arrogance.
All that being said, Nightcrawler might have to be called Gyllenhall’s triumph more than Dan Gilroy’s, although one imagines that a character as distinct as Louis Bloom requires a great deal of preparation and collaboration. He’s decidedly not a hero, but it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him; Louis’ plight recalls Hitchcock’s famous claim that movie audiences want to see characters get away with the crime, even if it’s reprehensible. What kind of backstory and set of circumstances would give rise to Louis Bloom, who relentlessly speaks in self-help and business-seminar aphorisms and has so absorbed the philosophies of capitalism and the media that they’ve sapped his humanity? He always remains an enigma, even when he enters undeniably villainous territory near the end of the film; he’s the kind of creation you want to learn more about, though to discover anything about his past would dissolve his morbid fascination. The best cinematic sociopaths are human puzzles, compelling because of their indiscernibility. Louis Bloom might join that unsettling company in Nightcrawler: even when the movie becomes grating and obvious, there’s always his character to entrance and disturb you.
There’s a trace of a meta-cinematic self-criticism in Gilroy’s approach: Louis is an ambitious perfectionist, always solely concerned with getting the best footage possible, in the manner of a film director. Nightcrawler isn’t quite agile or ambitious enough to draw out this theme, although that might be preferable—it’s a tangent for audiences to contemplate, if they’re ever in the mood to think outside the movie’s box. More generally, such a subtext indicates how interesting and capricious Nightcrawler can be at its best, satirizing Cops-like television one moment and leaping to vibrant L.A.-noir tropes the next. The rush that the film generates shouldn’t be mistaken for greatness: the plot is uneven and many of its blatant themes are self-obvious. But recklessness can be more fun than greatness, and Nightcrawler is one of the more exciting and caustic films in theaters right now—a pitch-black satire driven by a character who represents humanity at its most rapaciously skewed.