I can’t say for sure if “nightcrawler” is an authentic piece of broadcast-news slang, but it’s a most fitting label for Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man of almost inhuman amorality, who scuttles about L.A. in search of gruesome footage to sell to TV news outlets. That he goes down an increasingly dark path in search of the goods is hardly surprising; one look at Lou and you realize he’s bad news. But if Nightcrawler is not thematically revelatory–one could call it Medium Cool for our generation–it achieves such a wonderfully sick madness in Gyllenhaal’s performance, and achieves such tension thanks to Dan Gilroy’s direction, that it manages to make a case for itself as one hell of a movie.
The plot itself is really pretty basic. One night on the freeway, Lou (who’s been making ends meet by stealing industrial supplies and reselling them) sees an accident and watches a team of cameramen rush in to cover it. Realizing that there’s money in real-life gore, he buys a camera (by pawning a stolen bicycle, of course) and secures his first footage. Going to news station KWLA, he sells the footage to news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) and, impressing her, is able to catch on quickly and soon makes enough money to hire an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed). Lou gains the upper hand in the field when he sabotages one of his biggest competitors (Bill Paxton); not only does he begin to command thousands of dollars per story for KWLA, he begins to manipulate Nina, preying on her precarious professional position and his role in boosting the station’s ratings to compel her to sleep with him.
He achieves a real coup when he happens upon and records a crime scene before the police even arrive–even identifying the perpetrators, whose identities he withholds. Now he must deal with Rick’s objections and the police’s enquiries as he attempts to parlay his knowledge into his biggest story yet.
Watching Lou’s particular breed of unscrupulous cheerfulness, I felt some of the same profound discomfort I felt watching De Niro in The King of Comedy. Here is a total negation of conscience; Lou doesn’t suppress his humanity–he has none. Not for a second in the film does he show the slightest regret for what he does, whether it’s beating a man (possibly/probably to death) and wearing his watch like a trophy, or strong-arming Nina into bed (thankfully we never see any actual physical contact between them; a single line of allusion–covering God-knows-how-many joyless trysts–is all we need), or bullshitting Rick mercilessly about the nature of his “business”, Lou never shows even a hint of regret.
What makes Lou so fearsome is his intelligence and his ability to seem harmlessly dorky; at times he follows others like a puppy, and Gyllenhaal’s visage has a puppyish quality about it. And much of the time he has the same hollow, slightly smiling expression, reflecting nothing so much as a soullessly analytical absorption of the world. It’s even worse when he speaks; he speaks in the most hideous corporate-motivational-buzzword argot, regurgitating paragraphs of drivel seemingly by rote. The effect is like if a corporate training manual was re-written by Ayn Rand.
And Lou’s cold-blooded willingness to do anything to succeed, and his capacity to succeed thus, is profoundly terrifying; it casts one back into the mindset that the world is a limitlessly ugly place, where ideals are fantasy and a conscience is a liability. Any healthy cynic would not forget this for a moment, but it takes a damned good film to convey this knowledge in such a desolate light. The L.A. of Nightcrawler is no place for the morally upright.
Gyllenhaal’s performance faced this challenge: to make Lou’s sociopathy not only compelling, but believable. And the script didn’t always make this easy; there are moments, especially near the end, which strain credulity a little. But Gyllenhaal rises completely to the task, and is sickeningly convincing as the eager-beaver aspiring journalist, the driven manipulator, and the bullshitter; whenever an obstacle presents itself to Lou, you fear for the obstacle. And most of the time, he’s so eerily calm, but even his one moment of real rage feels real, at least in the context of a character who is so far removed from reality that reality doesn’t stop him.
Gyllenhaal should be in contention for many awards this season; it’s some of the best work of the year, and few actors could have pulled off this kind of vile anti-charisma and not seemed ridiculous. But the ridiculousness of Nightcrawler is the ridiculousness of reality–that the successful are clever and the unsuccessful are careless, and any question of morality is academic. What matters is success, and Gyllenhaal makes Lou a creature of pure ambition–a man who lives simply (his apartment is quite barren), a man with no past, a man who will never stop striving because success for him is the means and the end.
Russo, for her part, embodies the grit necessary to run a news station, but when Nina cracks (however subtly) in the face of Lou’s relentless drive, Russo is just as effective at displaying a kind of dignified desperation–or desperate dignity–and as she is corrupted by Lou’s influence, Russo plays the change as naturally as you could want. She honestly deserves to be remembered come awards time as much as Gyllenhaal (Supporting Actress being as weak a category as it usually is); it’s a low-key but vital performance.
Ahmed mostly reacts in horror to Gyllenhaal’s madness, but he does it well, and he provides a human foil to Lou’s inhumanity; at one point, he challenges Lou’s sense of cold logic with a bit of human ambiguity, and it only compounds the totality of Lou’s depravity. Paxton doesn’t get much to do, but he’s a reliably engaging presence.
This is Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, and it must be said that he does a hell of a job with his own script. The tension only mounts as the film progresses, and there’s a car chase near the end as thrilling as any chase scene I’ve seen in ages, because the normal Hollywood rules don’t apply in the world of Nightcrawler; it’s almost as if reality is changing itself to suit Lou’s desires. And Gilroy’s script is as chilling as it is sickly funny; again, it stretches believability just a tad at times, but given the world it sets up, it’s mostly quite logical.
Robert Elswit’s cinematography captures the chilly loneliness of the city by night, the off-putting brightness of crime-scene and accident lights, and the garish fakeness of broadcast news. John Gilroy (Dan’s twin) edits the film for maximum tension. The soundscape and music add to the grim aura.
I can’t say if Nightcrawler is the kind of **** film that will stand as classic for years to come, but it’s the kind of film that in the watching is so engaging, so unsettling, so successful at creating a protagonist of pure smiling terror, that it justifies your time and your money. For, as Lou says, “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”