What’s the dream footage to lead local morning news? A screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut, of course.
That’s according to unscrupulous news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo). Her world is controlled by ratings which are in turn driven by suburban fear mongering and perverse images of death and violence. Nightcrawler takes us into a depraved nocturnal journalistic underground where freelance auteurs ambulance chase the night away in hopes of filming that big scoop. We’re told that “if it bleeds, it leads.”
In a time when ISIS beheadings dominate the news, Nightcrawler appears to be an opportune satire of the dark scopophilia that excites modern masses. Thematically, the film lies in a tantalising spot between the prescient, dystopian modernity of J.G. Ballard’s novels, most notably Crash, and Hitchcock’s obsessive voyeurism. However, despite the refreshing take on current events, Nightcrawler isn’t about morally dubious news at all.
It’s about Jake Gyllenhaal. More specifically, it’s about the character he brings to life: Louis Bloom.
Bloom is a peculiar nomadic loner who speaks like an asocial robot through snippets of internet-learnt buzzwords and business school bullsh*t. His interpersonal ineptness is offset by an unwavering ambition for success, a trait he builds into a career as a “nightcrawler.” He spends nights listening to police scanner as he hunts for the goriest accidents to sell to local news networks.
Bloom has no background, no friends or romantic interests and never seems to sleep. The only human behavior he exhibits comes when he waters his plant. There’s a point where he’s watching Danny Kaye in The Court Jester on TV alone in his flat when he turns to the empty space on his sofa and laughs manically. It is as if he’s willing a companion to fill the void.
What takes Bloom to the next level is Gyllenhaal’s conviction. With hollowed out cheeks, slicked back hair and a sinister yet warm smile, he’s a far cry from the handsome leading man of the past few years. Most alarming of all is Gyllenhaal’s ability to produce a pair of bulging eyes that never contemplate the value of blinking. But of course they don’t; how can Bloom absorb every last bit of information if his eyes are shut?
There is seldom a scene in Nightcrawler without Bloom. This is his unrelenting story. Everyone else is superfluous, minor characters that exist merely to mirror or reaffirm his own thoughts. The film is so much “The Jake Gyllenhaal Show” that it’s easy to overlook the excellent actors and crew surrounding him. The small supporting cast boils down to Bloom’s desperate footage buyer Nina and his dozy assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed).
Russo’s performance as Nina echoes Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler with regard to the strength of her casting. She eases into the Nina’s truculent boots with a seductive confidence. Below her heavily plastered make up and confident exterior is a deeply insecure woman whose fears about her age and job provoke her to push ethical boundaries. Russo does a good job portraying a woman on the edge. She is just the sort of awful, lowlife journalist we’ve come to despise in the modern age.
Rick is a complete contrast to Bloom and Nina. His ethical, twitchy manner works as a particularly superb comic foil for his mad boss. Riz Ahmed is an unusual casting choice being an relatively unknown English actor, previously most famous forthe terrorism comedy, Four Lions. Regardless, his comic background shines through as Rick stands by Bloonm beneath the L.A. streetlights. One of the funniest moments in the film comes when Bloom offers to promote Rick to executive vice president of his two-man company. Rick’s completely befuddled by the absurdity of Bloom’s proposal, yet he can’t help but revel in the praise. Unlike Bloom, he wears his emotions on his sleeve; watching him process his boss’s bizarre behavior is amusing to say the least.
Director Dan Gilroy makes his debut with a firm focus on character-driven narrative. Along with veteran cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) and composer James Newton Howard, his efforts are spent centering the film on Louis Bloom’s thirst for success. Often the camera faces Gyllenhaal straight on as he delivers his motivational spiels like he’s lecturing us on how to succeed in business.
When it’s not trained on Gyllenhaal’s face, the camera glides fluidly over Bloom’s car as if stalking its prey. It then homes in on the latest disaster with an authentic found footage approach. It’s polished camera work from Elswit that reciprocates Bloom’s own vulture-like tendencies as it puts emphasis firmly on Gyllenhaal.
Meanwhile, Howard’s score picks up in an almost uplifting classical sense that is immediately evocative of modern superhero narratives. These shining orchestral moments often appear just as Bloom commits heinous acts. It is as if Howard and Gilroy are praising rather than scolding him.
Gyllenhaal plays Bloom as a contradictory concoction of hilarious delusion and unsettling depravity. It’s car crash viewing. There’s palpable tension in every escapade for footage. Gyllenhaal’s slow descent from unnerving to psychotic turns him into an eminently filmable urban disaster. We can’t help but dread and anticipate the levels of immorality Bloom will go to meet his own ends.
That in itself is a strange indictment of the morally skewed desires of moviegoing audiences. We want to see bloody atrocities onscreen, but don’t wish to publicly condone it. Bloom succeeds as a character because he caters to that need with so little principle that it’s almost admirable.
You might read Nightcrawler as a condemnation of the public’s primitive thirst for violence. Conversely, the film can be seen as a modern success story and the birth of an artist, albeit through unconventional and amoral means. The joy of director Gilroy’s thesis is that it can be understood and enjoyed on several levels.
Gyllenhaal’s magnetic performance stands out even among Nightcrawler‘s already strong script, camerawork, score and supporting players. He is an invigorating lead and goes completely bonkers in his role. Gyllenhaal adeptly mixes necessary ingredients to make Louis Bloom into a character who will live long in film history.
Movie Verdict: Win