Written and directed by: Dan Gilroy
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton
Nightcrawler tells the story of a young man called Louis Bloom who gets caught up in the world of nighttime crime journalism in LA. Louis is not an ordinary man and yet at the same time his motives and dreams are the most banal imaginable: He is looking for success. If there is one word that encapsulates his whole character and mannerisms, it is “driven”. From the feverish glance in his eyes and his swift movements to his non-stop blathering, he is unbearably unnerving and endlessly fascinating to watch at the same time.
In the beginning Louis starts out as a small-town crook, a thief who does not belong to any organization or gang, but barely manages to survive with badly planned thefts. When he meets the successful night time crime reporter Joe (Bill Paxton) at an accident scene one night, he has an epiphany: Louis wants to become one of those men who live from the blood poured on LA’s streets. Free of moral boundaries or any anxieties regarding the dangerous nature of this job, he spontaneously starts as a freelancer, only equipped with his cheap camera and his old car.
After an embarrassingly amateurish start, he really manages to sell footage of the aftermath of a shooting to the morning news director of a local TV-station, Nina (Rene Russo). Due to his sheer never-ending energy and his relentless zeal, his career soon takes a steep upwards curve, even prompting him to employ an (underpaid) assistant. Things get complicated, when Louis starts to manipulate accident and crime scenes to amp up the rates…
Nightcrawler is, surprisingly, a rather straightforward fable about the business that is feeding on the lust for sensation but also the fear of the TV-watching population. What the plot structure lacks in complexity, is made up by the intensity of the way the story is told, which is solely from the perspective of its main character. Nearly every scene features Louis aka Gyllenhaal and the audience is forced to identify with this deeply unsympathetic character.
The first thing in Nightcrawler that catches the eye are its visuals. Rarely has the nocturnal LA looked that good, maybe only Collateral can top it in that department. There is no heightening or stylization, it’s the squalor of the city in all its glamour, illuminated only by neon signs and street lamps that exude that idiosyncratic dirty yellow light we learned to associate with the Californian metropolis through so many movies.
Main selling point is a drastically emaciated Gyllenhaal though, who delivers again after his outstanding performances under director Villeneuve in Prisoners and Enemy (both 2013), completing his personal trifecta of soon to be legendary roles. Brilliantly he almost merges with Louis, one of the most fascinating deranged men of the last ten years of movie history. Louis is a hollow shell of a human, his character a projectile fuelled by pure ambition for the sake of ambition, which is the worst kind. He is not without precedent, the pop culture is haunted by the archetype of the potentially sociopathic overachiever who uses more than his elbows to get on top. When Louis talks, he only talks in neoliberal motivation slogans.
Louis shares the inane verbosity with Patrick Bateman, the propensity for compulsive lying and manipulating with Tom Ripley and his social awkwardness shows a hint of Travis Bickle. The scene where he tries to get Nina into bed via black mailing is truly cringe-worthy.
One obvious target of this satire/black comedy/thriller/drama melange is the media business, but while the depiction of its excesses is effective and the chastising of its practices well-deserved, the film does not add anything new we have not seen yet in other movies in this regard. In the end it is more about the “How” than the “What” when the audience is turned into an involuntary accomplice during the exploits of Louis.
Viewed through the lens of interpretation, the more interesting subtext lies in the relationship between Louis and his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed). Like Louis, Rick is also a lost creature of the night who struggles for survival in an unrelenting city, but character-wise he is the total opposite of Louis: Kind-hearted, but also anxious and passive.
There is a surreal scene in the beginning when Louis meets Rick for a job interview in a restaurant, and although he is still very poor and rundown, he presents himself as a professional company, demanding absolute obedience from Ricky. Cascades of the worn-out neoliberal claptrap about self-improvement and working for a greater good than oneself everybody who has been looking for a job in the last years had to endure, are poured over poor Ricky and those platitudes are subtly revealed as the manipulative propaganda that they are, when Louis delivers them with the wholehearted conviction only a maniac has. It’s a perfect bitter metaphor for the cynical methods that dominate the job market in the post- economic crisis times.
While Joe and Nina are ruthless characters, their motivations are still understandable- one can see that they came from a better place and turned into the people they are now. But Louis is a member of the succeeding generation, when ruthlessness turned from being caused by necessity or opportunism to an unquestioned predicament. Makes your skin crawl.
The second half of the movie, when the thriller elements kick into gear and the individual subplots finally coalesce, is maybe a tad better than the meandering first half.
Overall a very recommendable movie that is a little rough around the edges, elevated by the brilliant performance of its lead.