Open Road Films
R for violence including graphic images, and for language.
Running time: 117 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
“Nightcrawler” is a great Los Angeles film and a great media film and a great noir, powered by a supremely creepy performance from Jake Gyllenhaal in what is perhaps the best work of his eclectic career. But fundamentally, it’s also a film about the power of showmanship, and the danger of believing your own hype.
Ambition is supposed to be a good thing, especially in this country. Pulling yourself up from your bootstraps, building something out of nothing, making a name for yourself — it’s all part of the American dream. In the assured hands of Dan Gilroy, a longtime screenwriter (“The Fall,” “The Bourne Legacy”) making his directing debut, that dream becomes a chilling nightmare. (Gilroy’s brother, Tony, the director of “Michael Clayton” and “The Bourne Legacy,” serves as producer here while Dan’s twin, John Gilroy, is the editor.)
Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou Bloom, enjoys great financial success and dominance at the top of his chosen field, working as a freelance videographer who sells exclusive (and usually graphic) footage to an L.A. television station. Crashes and crime scenes are his bread and butter. He is driven. He is innovative. He is happy. He is also a monster — a fiend who preys on people at their weakest and worst moments. What’s fascinating about Gilroy’s approach to the character is that he doesn’t judge him. He lets Lou do his thing and lets us gawk at the awesome lengths to which he’ll go without an ounce of remorse or shame. You’ve gotta hand it to Lou: He’s really good at his job.
It would be easy to say that “Nightcrawler” is a snapshot of How We Live Now. But truthfully, it isn’t saying anything about the relationship between the media and society — and the toxic and symbiotic voyeurism that fuels it — that hadn’t been said already, decades earlier, in eerily prescient films from “Ace in the Hole” (1951) to “Network” (1976) to “Broadcast News” (1987). The notion of “if it bleeds, it leads” isn’t exactly shocking. Gilroy is, however, making his points with great verve and vivid style. Veteran cinematographer Robert Elswit, Paul Thomas Anderson’s frequent collaborator who won an Oscar for “There Will Be Blood,” shoots Los Angeles in the wee hours with darkly gleaming menace, which is crucial to creating the film’s mounting sense of suspense.
Nighttime is prime time for Lou from the very beginning. When we first see him, he’s lurking in the darkness, stealing scrap metal and chunks of chain-link fence to sell them for whatever paltry cash he can get. It’s an obvious comparison, but Lou is a vampire prowling around the City of Angels; the often-hunky Gyllenhaal embodies the part with a startling physicality with his lanky frame, pasty facial features and sleazy demeanor. But when Lou opens his mouth, what comes pouring out is a steady stream of vapid self-help platitudes and cliched business jargon. The words may seem benign and the patter may sound even-tempered, but the intensely earnest way he actually believes what he’s saying is what makes his shpiel so unsettling.
During one of his midnight missions, he stumbles upon a gnarly car accident on the side of the freeway. When he pulls over to check it out, he crosses paths with Joe Loder (a perfectly abrasive Bill Paxton), an enterprising freelance photographer who pulls up in his van and dashes out with his video camera to chronicle the wreckage in hopes of selling it to the highest bidder. You can practically see the light bulb go off over Lou’s head.
The gaffes he makes when he first tries to break into the game provide some of the few laughs in “Nightcrawler” — the technical glitches and breaches of protocol with annoyed police officers and firefighters. But Lou is frighteningly smart and a quick learner, and in no time he’s caught the attention of longtime local news producer Nina Romina (a tough-as-nails Rene Russo, Gilroy’s wife), whose on-air glory days are far behind her.
The two need each other, to the point where Lou ups the stakes by enlisting a right-hand man to help him scramble across town to even more locations, the ever-present police scanner buzzing with coded clues as to where they should go. Riz Ahmed does a lot with a rather understated role, but most importantly, he serves as the film’s lone sympathetic figure.
As Nina’s ratings increase, so do Lou’s profits as well as his twisted sense of self, inspiring him to tweak and even stage crime scenes. To say that he plays God would suggest that he undergoes some sort of internal ethical debate. He does not; rather, he acts quickly and decisively in constructing his narrative until he himself becomes the story. You can’t exactly endorse his tactics, but you also can’t turn your eyes away for fear of missing what comes next. He’s a terrible human being, but he creates must-see TV.