November 20, 2014 | 12:40pm EST
Nightcrawler is a modern take on a cautionary tale as old as television itself, one that cinema most famously already told in Network (1976). In that oscar-winning film, an ensemble of cable newsmakers destroy their own and one another’s lives — through suicide attempts, assassinations, infidelity and prostitution — in order to boost ratings at the expense of their friendships. Nightcrawler takes television news back to that dark place, the place where life and limb are necessary casualties in the mission to get the right shot.
Without actually knowing the backstory, I wouldn’t be surprised if screenwriter Dan Gilroy (who makes his directorial debut) hatched the idea for Nightcrawler after hearing the phrase “If it bleeds, it leads.” The common newsroom cliche is used in the film, in the very scene in which protagonist Lou Bloom decides to take up freelance videography, and Gilroy seems to have accepted it as a challenge, as if to say, let’s see just how far we can stretch that before people stop accepting it. He stretches it pretty far, and smartly in steps. Bloom finds he can get away with moving around some photos in a crime scene to make a better story, then a body — stop me when you think he has crossed an ethical line — then he let’s a man die. With what else can he get away?
Lou Bloom, on paper not much more than an overwrought, ghoulish Holden Caulfield with a camera, is played by Jake Gyllenhaal. A long, LONG way from Donnie Darko and October Sky, Gyllenhaal brings this otherwise sanctimonious movie to heights it could not reach without him. His performance as Lou Bloom is sublime. It is obvious from the first frames that he prepared exhaustively for the role. He reportedly lost more than 20 pounds to play Lou as a literalized nightcrawler, the term that locals in Southern California use to refer to the coyotes and other predators that lurk by night. It worked. His hunger and ferocity come off the screen so well that he is singularly what makes the movie a little terrifying. The acting here is in the little things about his expression. Hardly ever blinking, his eyes are penetrating yet wandering, like those of a hunting animal, then lock in when they need. His lips, at some of the most important scenes, are handling perfectly in that you, the viewer, notice the quick, crooked smile but just enough so it doesn’t seem overt. His voice is, in a word, piercing, and it becomes even more shrill when matched with the annoying superficiality of what he is saying.
Nightcrawler opens with a handful of shots of Los Angeles by night, descending on a lone station wagon and a thief stealing copper fence to sell for scrap. This film is as much about it’s city as anything else, shot at no fewer than 75 locations in LA and the suburbs. This thief in the LA night is, or course, Lou. His first words in the movie when questioned by a security guard are “I’m lost.” Over the next two hours and change, his deviant ambitions grow more devious, and his lies grow better. It’s on a night just like this when he is driving home and passes by a brutal car wreck and meets Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a freelance camera guy who keeps up with a police scanner every night to get footage for the morning news. He’s a stringer, a nightcrawler. Lou is immediately interested.
This moment came too soon in the film, I think. The swift ebb and flow of the camera and the sharp edits create a shockingly realistic aesthetic, one that I think would have been more thrilling and emotional if the audience knew more about Lou the character before diving into the story. What we do know at this time is what Lou tells a construction foreman while he is looking for a job. “If you want to win the lottery,” he says is his motto, “you have to make the money to buy the ticket.” Lou is a self-starter, the sort of young man who thinks a formal education is overrated because you can learn just about anything with a proper web search and you can climb in any business with hard work. He also says he regrets being part of the “self-esteem movement” of the 1990s when every kid was told they did a good job and that they were entitled to what they work for. He might resent this in theory, but he is the ultimate, violent embodiment of it in practice.
His blind, almost thoughtless ambition can only be described as entitlement. When he gets some footage of a fatal shooting, he doesn’t bother seeking contacts or sending emails. No, he walks right into the cutting room at a local news station and fights for the attention of the producer. When he wants to break into his new freelancing gig, he doesn’t try to ease into the business. No, he buys a camera from a pawn shop, hires an “intern” to help him navigate starts introducing himself as the CEO of a company called Video News Production. He thinks he is qualified in every field because he can recite superficial knowledge from an online business class, most of which actually sounds straight from a self-help book. The crazy thing about it is that this all works. He is, against all odds, a commodity as a videographer, and his so-called business grows quickly. He’s an outsider who has no idea what lines not to cross, but he’s, as we hear Gyllenhaal rattle off several times, “a quick learner.”
Technically, Nightcrawler is an achievement of filmmaking. The score is very effective in spite of — and, actually, because of — it inescapable cheesiness. At it’s core a thriller, Nightcrawler grows into a satire, and the been-there-done-that thriller score, marching along at the same rapid pace of the cuts and the same sense of reach as Gyllenhaal’s brilliantly obnoxious delivery, works very well. It is also a pretty film, or at least as pretty as a film shot on location in dark LA suburbs can be. The slanted streets, battered cars and eyesore homes (like once white sneakers, the underclass housing complex Lou lives alone in looks like it spent too much time running through the mud) don’t do the visuals any favor, but the joint film and digital photography still sharply adds to the realism. Lou, a moving picture photographer himself, would probably think very highly of the work done on Nightcrawler. After all, he says, proper framing is everything. (When he says this, he and producer Nina are facing one another taking up the majority of the shot, with a bright center illuminating their faces but their backs lost in shadow, making this an excellent moment of metafiction, whether intended or not.)
As a thriller and nothing else, Nightcrawler is fine entertainment, a well made caper with the scariest of anti-heroes: one that could very easily be out there. But as a social satire, a warning about the ills of the digital age and the 24-hour news cycle, it is derivative (of Network, for example). There is selling sex (or maybe not, this is the film’s lone mystery) in the name of favorable ratings. There is the specter of the Internet: “Everything about you is online, well probably not everything but a whole lot of stuff.” It’s wonderfully uncomfortable in the context it is presented, but I can’t get over hearing that and thinking, Yes, we know.
I think what all of this has been building to is this: Jake Gyllenhaal just gave one of the best, most intense, most unique and physical performances of his career. The film fails without his talents and the genuinely interesting character of Lou Bloom. He’s crazy. Even when he is playing the role of an average joe, of the modern entrepreneur, he is clearly crazy. Everything about his performance — that is to say both Gyllenhaal’s as Lou, and Lou when he tries to sell himself — is very calculated and precise. It’s spooky. But no matter how much he can pretend he is going to push forward like everything is according to precedent, Lou becomes clearly emotionally exhausted, and that leads to some of the few patently shocking moments in the final act. The only way to describe the tension of those late sequences is to quote another filmmaker, Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo), who said that great stories are “inevitable, without being predictable.” There seems like only one trajectory for Lou, but it still managed to be enticing and sharp.