[4 out of 4 stars]
Dir. Dan Gilroy; Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed
Some journalists are interested only in sensationalized news, always tracking the newest, most shocking story that can be peddled for maximum shock factor; as one character in Nightcrawler (2014) says, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Much of the media, particularly television news, thrives on this sort of content. Because television news is built on visual elements, it is especially prone to violent or shocking imagery meant to both attract and disgust its viewers. In Nightcrawler, director Dan Gilroy dives into the seedy media world of Los Angeles by presenting us with a sociopathic cameraman and a desperate news director.
When we first meet Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), he is stealing chain link fence to sell for money. After he makes a deal with the foreman of a construction site, he asks for a job, but the man replies, “I’m not hiring a thief.” Lou lives alone, in an immaculate but tiny apartment, and does not have any friends or family. Skinny with slicked-back hair, he looks constantly hungry, wide-eyed and focused, and often cracks a wide grin. One night, he happens upon a violent car wreck and pulls over (to watch? to help? to get a closer look?) and notices a van pull up full of “stringers” (freelance journalists who contribute to news organizations). They film the crash, the cops struggling to pull the driver from her burning vehicle. Lou is intrigued and asks: “Will this be on television?” The lead cameraman Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) replies, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Inspired, Lou buys a police scanner and a small video camera and begins his own television news business, Video Production News; eventually, he is able to hire an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed). The videos he captures are good enough to catch the attention of Nina (Rene Russo), the news director of a struggling local news station. She urges Lou to focus on wealthy white neighborhoods in LA and to get closer to the action — even though the police are constantly ordering him to step back as he takes his worth farther and farther. Despite Lou’s can-do attitude and motivation, we never sympathize with him; right off the bat, we are wary of him.
For Nina and for Lou, there is no such thing as too far. While other staff at the news station are disturbed by some of the footage he brings in, Nina is riveted and believes that “Lou is encouraging all of us to reach a little higher.”’ At one point, she tells him to “think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” This world is violent and intense; there is no turning away or hiding from the gore. Nina and Lou want it all right in our face, all the time. While Lou’s urges tend toward the sociopathic, Nina is simply desperate and more than willing to sacrifice journalistic ethics for good tape. Local television news is struggling, and she’s trying to prove to her bosses that her work is worth something. As such, broadcasting graphic images of a gruesome murder on the morning news as residents are eating their cereal doesn’t phase her; it’s a way to attract more viewers. Nina says she wants “something people can’t turn away from” — whether that something is the true story or not.
Watching the film, one gets the sense that this story only could have taken place in LA; in Gilroy’s world, the city is almost a character itself. Often shown at night as a place of shadows and deserted streets, the cityscape seems to energize Lou, who works at night. He prowls up and down the dark roads, lit either by bright fluorescence in the more populated areas or sparse streetlights in the rural neighborhoods. LA in the daytime looks benign, and we see Lou in locations like his neat apartment or a kitschy diner. He appears benign in the daylight, hair neatly combed. But at night, as he sets out into the city with his police scanner, it’s as if the world is transformed. LA at night, Gilroy seems to say, is dark and violent and unpredictable, and anyone can get away with anything. Of course, Gilroy is not the first to set a crime film in the city; Sunset Boulevard (1950), Chinatown (1974), and Mulholland Drive (2001) all utilized LA before him. However, he updates this setting by bringing it into the present day. It is a modern film where the threat is not so much the violence itself as it is the greedy, sociopathic reporters and producers who are able to widely broadcast it, unchecked by moral standards.
One of the most brilliant things about Jake Gyllenhaal is his ability to adapt, completely and convincingly, to each of his new roles. From Donnie Darko (2001) to Stronger (2017), Gyllenhaal has taken on a diverse set of roles and often excels. Whether he be drawling about “a couple of high-altitude fucks” as a Wyoming rancher in Brokeback Mountain (2005) or duking it out in the boxing ring as Billy the Great in Southpaw (2015), he immerses himself completely in each role, and the results are impressive. Nightcrawler is no different. We immediately distrust Lou, not just because he’s stealing chain link metal for money but because of some intangible quality Gyllenhaal gives him. Perhaps it’s his slightly too-wide eyes or his too-polished demeanor; perhaps it’s his impeccably combed hair or his tendency to spout off cliché inspirational quotes such as “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.” His gaze is too intense; one gets the sense he is performing calculations about everyone he meets, figuring out how to get exactly what he wants out of them. Gyllenhaal has described the character as “a human coyote,” and watching him prowl the dark streets of LA at night, hungry for violence to sustain him, it’s an apt comparison.
Nightcrawler is the perfect mix of drama and dark humor, stellar acting and social critique. What makes Lou so unsettling is that, unlike Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver (1976), he is often happy and grinning, laughing at jokes on the television just to himself. Travis, with his mohawk and jacket packed full of guns, is an immediate threat, but Lou is not visually aggressive, with his cheeky grin. The unnerving part is that he sees nothing wrong with what he is doing; in his mind, he’s simply running a television news service and the body count his work necessitates is all just part of the job, a sad result of his work rather than the goal of it, per se. Gilroy does not go so far as to equate us as viewers with Lou, but it is hard not to see similarities. We, too, are drawn to violent stories and tragedies; we, too, have become numb to images of violence; we, too, are drawn to sensationalized media and over-the-top reporting which masks the true stories underneath.