Film Review – Nightcrawler
Los Angeles: a city of dreams and nightmares. Neon lights cut through deep dark shadows as a menacing score keeps us on edge. This is a city where anything can happen, and where people will do anything to get what they want. Dan Gilroy, whose previous credit was writing the screenplay for The Bourne Legacy (2012), makes his directorial debut in Nightcrawler (2014). This is a taut, neo-noir black comedy in every shape and form. Gilroy creates his film with the confidence of a seasoned veteran, establishing an off the wall tone and maintaining it all the way through. Just as we think things will snap into reality, Gilroy delves deeper into the surreal – working the satire with light taps to start, and ending with the thud of a hammer. This is something unique, something worth considering for a long time.
The narrative centralizes on the media and their constant need (along with viewers) for the sensational. We watch the slimy inner workings of late night video journalists, aka “Nightcrawlers.” These are freelance videographers whose job is to capture accidents, shootings, stabbings, and other forms of extreme crime and sell the footage to the highest bidding TV-news station. Satirizing trashy journalism is nothing new, but very few have as much hilarity or uncompromising bite as Gilroy (who also wrote the screenplay). These are immoral characters, whose main objective is greed, money, and ratings. They care little about the accuracy of their reporting, or even if they’re breaking any laws while doing it. As long as it’s graphic, takes place in an affluent neighborhood where the victims are most likely white, and can disturb viewers, anything is game. Gilroy pulls no punches.
This is a colorful but dangerous world. The cinematography by Robert Elswit has a cool and slick polish. Yellows from streetlights contrast against splashy blues and reds to provide a hyper-realistic aesthetic. James Newton Howard provides an ominous score underneath – lots of electric guitar and other synthesized layers. Combined together, the atmosphere of late night Los Angeles both attracts and repels. The style calls to mind the work of Michael Mann.
But at its core, the film is a stage for Jake Gyllenhaal to give his most transformative performance to date. His work as Louis Bloom lands right in between the real and absurd. With a gaunt frame, dark circles around his eyes, and a goofy grin that never goes away, Gyllenhall plays Bloom as ambitiously manic. We first meet Bloom cutting a metal fence in hopes of selling the hardware to local construction sites. His character is established right away: Bloom is a thief, and when desperate will do everything in his power to survive. He reaches an epiphany as he drives by an auto accident, and watches another cameraman (Bill Paxton) work with odd fascination. He decides right then and there that his calling is to be a Nightcrawler. A quick learner (because he doesn’t have anything else to do), when Bloom sets his mind on something, there’s no turning back.
Gyllenhaal’s performance works so well, I almost can’t believe he pulled it off. Not only is Bloom a loner, he’s also a sociopath. The interaction he has with other people does not constitute “normal” human behavior. Gyllenhaal delivers his lines as though the character memorized them from a self-help book. He is constantly focused on his “business plan” and the steps he needs to take to move up the ladder. He’s also one of the most immoral characters we’ve seen in recent years. Bloom will go to any lengths necessary to get footage, and soon enough the work becomes more about him than the story. He starts to talk about framing and composition (like a filmmaker), he drives around in a bright red muscle car, and he pays his homeless intern (Riz Ahmed) chump change. He’ll step over anybody, and will manipulate any situation as he sees fit.
But the most interesting relationship Bloom has is with Nina (Rene Russo), the director of a slumping TV-news station. Rene Russo provides some of her best work in years as a character so hungry for success she’ll allow this clearly disturbed man to develop a professional connection with her. The way they sync together is hilariously strange. Bloom works his way into Nina’s mind, like a disease taking form and spreading. Gyllenhaal and Russo make an odd pairing on screen, but I’m sure that’s what Gilroy was getting at. By the time we reach the apex, the two are no longer human beings, but soulless robots programmed for one singular purpose.
Not since Network (1976) has a film been as sharp with lambasting the ethics of shock journalism. That’s a strong comparison, but a fitting one. If there is one thing Nightcrawler fails to do, it’s end up deep inside the madhouse the way Sidney Lumet did with his masterpiece. No matter. This is a stylish, disquieting, and very funny look into a profession I’m so glad I’m not a part of. If this is where Dan Gilroy begins as a director, I’m very interested to see where he goes next.