Silver Screen: Nightcrawler ****
A gaunt, ghostly Jake Gyllenhaal haunts nocturnal Los Angeles in Nightcrawler, patrolling the streets like a vampire. This ambling sociopath’s bloodlust is metaphorical; what feeds him is the tragedy of crime, accidents, and disasters. He floats at the edges of other people’s worst moments hoping to capture their misery on camera, which he can sell to news stations for a quick buck.
What makes writer/director Dan Gilroy’s debut feature so compelling is that Gyllenhaal’s unhinged cameraman Louis Bloom isn’t a media monster, but rather an actual monster who finds a symbiotic relationship with the media. It’s a subtle but significant distinction, especially since Nightcrawler works so much better as a character study than as a sociological treatise.
Bloom is a clammy handshake of a man whose inability to connect with other human beings has pushed him to the margins of society. When we meet him he’s scavenging copper wire and building materials from construction sites. The lengths he will go to even for such a small score are alarming, but more unsettling still is his sense of self-confidence. Louis is no tortured loner. He likes flying solo, driving around in his beat-up car or trolling the internet, where he schools himself in business tips and self-help platitudes. He uses logic like a like a mischievous five-year-old who just found a set of knives.
A chance encounter with a fresh car crash and the callous cameraman (Bill Paxton) there to film the tragedy sets Louis on a new career path. He buys a cheap camera and police scanner from a pawnshop and recruits a guileless hard-luck case (Riz Ahmed) to serve as his navigator and assistant.
Turns out that Louis’s utter lack of empathy makes him perfectly suited for the cutthroat, voyeuristic world of freelance TV-news gathering. He has no qualms about leaning over the shoulder of a paramedic to capture a dying woman’s final gasps or tromping through someone’s blood to capture a shot. In fact, Louis doesn’t have qualms about much of anything, and the increasing extremes to which he will go drives the movie forward. What makes Louis so fascinating and frightening is that he’s not blinded by hubris or driven to extremes by the increasing demands of his business. He was always willing to go to those extremes, he just never found the opportunity.
Louis establishes a relationship with Nina (Rene Russo), the late-night producer of a last-place TV station desperate for salacious video. She’s thrilled by Louis’s grim footage and urges him to bring her more, unaware of the Faustian bargain she’s making. (In case you, the viewer, weren’t clear on this, Mad Men’s Kevin Rahm stands next to her shaking his head and looking shocked to emphasize the point.)
Nightcrawler nominally shares its major plot points with Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic Blow-up, where a fashion photographer realizes one of his shots may inadvertently include evidence of a murder. Louis also captures a murder scene on film, albeit less inadvertently, but by this point Nightcrawler has already achieved full momentum and Louis has made his choice. Nightcrawler’s clear inspiration is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Louis is Travis Bickle with a work ethic but without the fumbling uncertainty and inner turmoil. (Contrast Bickle’s disastrous date with the campaign aid played by Cybill Shepherd with Louis’s eerily self-assured dinner with Nina.) The movie’s somnambulistic ramblings and nighttime netherworld also recall another Scorsese gem, the underrated, hallucinatory Bringing out the Dead.
Gyllenhaal gives the best performance of his career, which is impressive given his outstanding résumé (Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, Zodiac, Prisoners). The weight he lost for the role sharpens his softer features and lends him the visage of a scarecrow. The corners of his mouth dimple into a slight, constant grin that contrasts eerily with his wide, hollowed eyes. He’s the movie’s most special effect.
Nightcrawler is at its best exploring Louis’s interior darkness, and at its worst when operating as a shrill media critique. Its alarmist warnings about the perils of an increasingly salacious, ratings-driven news media are woefully out of date. That sort of hand-wringing belongs back in the 1970s with the movie’s primary influences. At one point, Paxton’s character unironically quips, “If it bleeds, it leads,” a sentence not even the most un-self-aware, clichéd journalist has said in twenty years.
The trouble with TV news today isn’t a lurid focus on tragedy so much as distractibility and a lack of context. The populace has tired of the car chases and graphic shooting footage that dominated the leering Reagan era. Today’s ratings chase is about comingling snippets of actual reporting with entertainment news and celebrity gossip. A more fitting monster for modern-day media wouldn’t be Louis’s tragedy hound but rather a pushy TMZ cameraman trying to frustrate Ben Affleck into using a homophobic slur. Spooky.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.