In Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal stalks the streets of Los Angeles at night, searching his police scanner for word of fatal car crashes or drive-by shootings in affluent neighbourhoods so he can descend on the crime scenes and capture ghastly footage of the victims to sell to local news stations. Here is a sick man in a twisted film, one that gets at the psychopathic evil underneath the can-do spirit of the American self-made man. It’s also a great black comedy, pulling in equal parts from Billy Wilder and Martin Scorsese to create a portrait of toxic opportunism that is bursting with perverse energy.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a loner desperate for a dollar and for the chance to find a career he loves. He’s an enterprising individual and speaks in a soft, optimist lilt, often peppering his conversation with business aphorisms and motivational speeches. He’s the kind of guy who’d unnerve you in conversation by reciting huge amounts of info about you verbatim from the first time you met him. He’s thin (Gyllenhaal lost 20 pounds for the role), making Gyllenhaal’s naturally large eyes pop out. In interviews Gyllenhaal has stated he based his performance off a coyote. That seems apt, as there’s a hungry look in his eyes the entire film. We never see him eat or sleep, adding to the character’s palpable hunger.
We first meet Lou Bloom stealing fencing from a train yard. Soon enough he wanders upon a car crash and meets a cameraman (Bill Paxton) who records the footage to sell to a local news station. Lou is intrigued. He asks if there’s a job opening. There isn’t, but no matter. Lou gets himself a police scanner and a video camera and sets out to be the best nightcrawler of them all, not letting silly things like morality get in the way of some bloody, sensationalist footage to sell to Rene Russo’s ethically bankrupt local news director, Nina. For example, Lou finds a dead body at a car accident, but the body’s in a bad spot for lighting. Instead of accepting the bad frame, Lou just picks up the body by its legs and drags it over to where he can achieve a better frame against the lit-up sprawl of Los Angeles.
Lou Bloom is one of those all-time great characters, like Travis Bickle. As Gyllenhaal is in every scene and most every frame, he dominates the film, and much of Nightcrawler’s strength lies in his uncomfortable performance. Thankfully, the rest of the filmmaking is synchronized with Gyllenhaal’s bizarre physicality. Although a first-time director, Gilroy has a knack for composition and pacing. There is a car chase late in the film that is as thrilling as any I’ve watched this year, and the build up to it is mined beautifully for tension.
The way Gilroy shoots the streets of Los Angeles at night has drawn comparisons to Michael Mann’s films and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. The digital flair of the nighttime scenes justifies these comparisons, but there’s also more than a touch of Scorsese in how Gilroy frames the city through the eyes of Gyllenhaal’s Lou. Just as the muggy streets of New York in Taxi Driver reflect Travis Bickle’s psyche, Nightcrawler’s Los Angeles seems builts for Lou. Robert Elswit’s cinematography emphasizes the loneliness of the city at night. The city seems all but deserted, primed for people like Lou to stalk about it. As well, his lighting bathes the streets in sheen, as if the city itself is sweating and hungry.
The fact that Nightcrawler is so tied to Lou Bloom’s perspective makes it tempting to say the film is celebrating his tenacity and evil behaviour, but the filmmakers are smart enough to indict him without undercutting his character. Lou is polite and assertive and skillful at manipulating people and getting what he wants. All these attributes are thought of as necessary qualities for an enterprising individual, but Nightcrawler demonstrates that they’re also the tools of a psychopath. Gilroy shows that there isn’t a clear difference between a successful entrepreneur and a successful criminal or rapist in terms of how they get what they want and do what they do well. They both see individuals as possessions or commodities, and take what they want through manipulation and drive, the objections of others be damned.
In fact, Gilroy and Gyllenhaal mine plenty of laughs through the disparity between Lou’s optimistic speeches and his destructive behaviour. He’s always quoting business advice he read online or espousing the virtues of pursuing a job that you both love and you’re good at, but he says these things in the midst of gross ethical violations like manipulating a female colleague to sleep with him.
There’s no better evidence that Nightcrawler ultimately condemns Lou Bloom than the aforementioned scene where he moves a car accident victim so as to get a better shot for his news footage. As he moves the body into place and steps back to look through his camera viewfinder, his face lights up. It’s a perfect shot, in his mind. But Gilroy never lets us see what Lou sees. We don’t see the body with the perfect backdrop of Los Angeles all lit up. Lou may dazzle Russo’s Nina with the footage, but Gilroy never gives Lou the satisfaction of pulling one over on the audience as well.
Lou Bloom is a glorious manipulator, and it’s a rush watching him work his dark magic on the nocturnal inhabitants of Los Angeles. But Nightcrawler never lets you forget that he’s also a monster. This is a great film of puncturing wit and punishing cynicism. I think people will remember it, and the startling performance at its centre, for years to come.
9 out of 10
Nightcrawler (2014, USA)
Written and directed by Dan Gilroy; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, and Bill Paxton.