Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an ambitious young man desperate to forge himself a career in L.A. crime journalism. He soon immerses himself in the nocturnal underbelly of Los Angeles and joins a group of freelance camera crews who are always on the lookout for crashes, fires and murders to film. Aided by Nina (Rene Russo), a veteran of local TV news, Lou blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story.
Persuasive and smartly-scripted, Nightcrawler arrives at an interesting moment for Hollywood cinema. A film for adults rather than teenagers, about moral dilemmas that extend into shades beyond mere black and white, it’s something of an anomaly amid the current slew of YA franchises and superhero extravaganzas. (All the more ironic given it shares its name with one of the mainstays of Marvel’s X-Men franchise.) The directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy, who co-wrote The Bourne Legacy with his brother Tony, it’s an unusually bold piece of work, as ambitious in its themes as it is gripping in execution.
Appropriately, we first encounter Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) at night, jacking copper wiring and chain-link fencing in the Los Angeles hills. It feels like his natural habitat: Bloom—whose name evokes odd, unresolved echoes of Joyce—is an essentially nocturnal creature, a skulker and a sneak. But when he’s surprised, mid-theft, by a blundering security guard, his response warns us that we take him lightly at our peril.
Later, while driving home, he happens upon a crime scene: a carjacking in Koreatown that has ended in a shooting. And seeing some freelance cameramen crowding around the victim as he bleeds out upon the pavement, Bloom sees not the horror of rudderless fate, but the silvery glow of opportunity…
Such a response should indicate Lou’s galactic distance from ordinary humanity. He belongs, in fact, to a particular taxonomy in American cinema: the semi-autistic aspirant. (See also: De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, or Kirk Douglas’s Chuck Tatum from Billy Wilder’s corrosive Ace in the Hole—in many ways the presiding influence upon this movie.) With his bright eagerness to help in any way, his fluency in corporate-speak, he’s the bastard son of a hundred self-help manuals and Wikihow page-views, a self-confessed striver above his own limitations. He wants to make himself the indispensable man—to fill any vacuum with the unasked-for gift of himself.
"Jake Gyllenhaal exerts a creepy kind of magnetism"
But there’s something dead behind his eyes, a vacancy where there ought to be fire—or at least a convincing facsimile of warmth. His apartment is spartan, its sole concession to domestic habitation a solitary pot-plant, which he waters with touching concentration—presumably, because he read somewhere that plants lend a ‘personal’ touch to a room. (Tellingly, we’re given no hint of Lou’s backstory, no mention of parents or siblings… There’s no need. He’s utterly his own creation, self-hatched and self-sustaining.) Yet for all his ambition, he’s sometimes surprisingly blinkered: pressuring a scrap dealer to give him a job, he seems genuinely taken aback when the guy points out that his actions, in getting him into the room, have also salted the earth. (“I won’t hire a thief.”)
Later, his intern Rick (British import Riz Ahmed), a creature several orders of magnitude more wretched and desperate than himself, points out to Lou that he doesn’t seem to understand ordinary human beings—how to talk to them, how to get them to do what he wants them to—and the huckster actually falls silent for a moment, as if processing this suggestion. His reply, when it comes, offers a glimpse of the darkness that lies beneath the mask of civility: “What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?”
The film’s master-stroke is to show us that he’s far from unique. On the contrary, there are not only other paparazzi, as coldly dispassionate as himself, but an entire infrastructure that thrives off their labours: TV news producers, network anchors, station owners, and, finally, viewers—never quite so appalled by the vicarious suffering of their neighbours as to change the channel. Lou is soon selling his footage to a local station, sufficiently lowly-rated to push the envelope in terms of what it will show on-air. Its chief producer Nina (a terrific René Russo) sees in the gaunt young man a hunger that will serve them both—especially with her own contract about to be re-negotiated. (Her advice is a model of cold-blooded clarity: suburban stories are best—home invasions, shootings, fires, major car accidents. Their audience typically doesn’t care about crimes that happen to black people, or Hispanics. “Think of our ideal viewer,” she says, “as a woman running the road with her throat cut, screaming.”) And eager to please as ever, Lou is soon tampering with crime-scenes in order to get better, more shocking images…
Gilroy is taking aim at a host of targets, here: the dehumanising sensationalism of television news (shades of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network); the zero-sum game of American capitalism; the all-pervasive nature of urban surveillance, which makes us all unwitting performers. Occasionally his approach can feel slightly scattershot: few viewers, you suspect, were exactly crying out for a dissection of the iniquities of the unpaid-internship system, yet the film offers that up, too. Still, you have to commend its ambition—and admire the white-hot fury that burns at its centre. It’s a movie of ideas, a moral argument wrapped up in a thriller.
As Lou, Jake Gyllenhaal exerts a creepy kind of magnetism; it’s perhaps his best performance since David Fincher’s Zodiac. He dropped some weight for the role, reportedly working out every day for months, and the winnowed severity of his face makes his eyes bulge, turns his ready smile into a wolfish slash. But he also handles Lou’s verbosity with assurance, unfurling whole paragraphs of phatic patter, little koans of Tony Robbins-style doublespeak. (“Why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue.”)
So is it a comedy? A drama? A ‘satirical thriller’? (And what would that look like, anyway?) The remarkable thing is, it’s actually all of these at once. And unlike other recent journeys into SoCal decadence—David Cronenberg’s awesomely flat-footed Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars, for example—it plays on all of these pitches simultaneously and well. Gilroy keeps shifting the emphasis—Lou and Nina’s ‘date’, in a dismal Mexican restaurant, flickers between hilarity and sadness and unease with each new beat—but that essential polyphony remains. As with Lou himself, you never know quite how you’re meant to take it.
Part of that might be due to its setting—Los Angeles is a city in which cruelty and farce are so closely conjoined as to often seem indistinguishable. But part of it is also the moment in which we find ourselves, when our most cynical suspicions have been confirmed—we know the game is rigged against us, yet the rules show no signs of changing. Caught in the machine, we have no power left except the choice to at least be amused by our own impotence. And, considered in these terms, Lou is almost a kind of hero, as the film’s final scene makes horribly clear.
American television, not cinema, is where much of this kind of detailed character-work has taken place recently, and many of the best examples—Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, Louie—have themselves blurred the lines between drama and comedy to the point where those distinctions have become meaningless. (The term ‘dramedy’ just doesn’t cut it, either descriptively or linguistically.) Its fascination with notions of collective guilt and complicity might mark Nightcrawler as an anachronism, small and quotidian beside the adventures of Katniss Everdeen and Tony Stark. But tonally, it feels absolutely, unarguably of the moment.
Friday 29 October, 7:30pm on SBS World Movies / Streaming after at SBS On Demand
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Director: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed