[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Nightcrawler opens today.]
Local TV news is sociopathic. If I came up to you and began our conversation talking about the horrible deaths of total strangers that had no larger implication than seizing on your deep-seated fears about city living, you would think I’m not only insane, but predatory. And you would be right. Dan Gilroy’s chilling, pulse-pounding Nightcrawler manifests the essence of local news and puts it inside a protagonist where a soul should be. Anchored by Jake Gyllenhaal giving the best performance of the year thus far, Gilroy’s film is a scathing and decadently amoral portrait of ice-cold calculation and ruthless ambition speeding through the dark streets of Los Angeles.
Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a thief who believes he has the work ethic to achieve far more than petty crimes. One night while driving past a car crash, he observes a “nightcrawler”, cameraman Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) capturing footage of the wreck to sell to news stations, and Lou finds his calling. Equipped with a camera he bought by pawning a stolen bicycle, Lou takes to his new profession like a shark to water. However, as his appetite for power increases, he goes to increasingly disturbing lengths to achieve his grotesque goals.
When we meet Lou, he’s in the middle of breaking and entering, and when confronted by a security guard, he not only beats the man, but also steals his watch. Lou doesn’t just want to get away; he wants to get away with more. Gilroy immediately lets us know this won’t be a matter of how far Lou will fall because he’s already at the bottom. We want to see how far he’ll go considering he has no scruples and an abundance of determination.
One of the many, many disturbing things about Lou is that he doesn’t care about the money success brings as much as the power and the respect. He’s told that the pay is shit, but that doesn’t deter him. He wants to own everyone and everything because ambition is his only guide. Anyone can make money, but as he tells news director Nina (Rene Russo), he doesn’t want to just be a successful nightcrawler. He wants to own the studio and everyone in it. He has no limits and demands unlimited rewards in return. It’s a dark, demented, and twisted portrait of what we’re supposed to expect from hard work and determination.
If the cost of our dreams is the lives of others, so be it. Nina doesn’t bat an eye when she tells Lou that he should “Think of the newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” (Nightcrawler is filled with these great lines) The disconnect between reality and action has become so gaping that morality doesn’t even enter the picture. The plea for journalistic integrity from Frank (Kevin Rahm), the station’s assignment editor, is treated with all the respect of a mouse fart. As the old adage goes, “If it bleeds, it leads,” and if Nina wants the news gushing, Lou is more than happy to provide a bloodbath.
Although the movie takes place in the present day, Gilroy gives it a subtle, 80s retro sheen with the help of James Newton Howard’s electric guitar-infused score. The implication is that Nina’s brand of news is in no way a new phenomenon, and we’ve made no attempt to refute or even question it. I don’t think Bloom is a product of this kind of news, but he’s also never known anything else. He doesn’t have to worry about Frank’s lofty ideals about whether or not bloody car wrecks qualify as “news”. Local TV news isn’t about journalism; it’s about opportunism. And where opportunity is seen as a paramount value, parasites like Lou and Nina are given free reign to suck the world dry.
Gilroy gets under our skin every moment, and whether it’s the thrill of a car chase, Lou finding a new low, a thinly veiled threat, or some other act of ruthlessness, Nightcrawler sticks to the ribs. We’re rubbernecking a car crash of reckless ambition and waiting to see how it will lead to an even bigger explosion. We’re entranced by this morbid, macabre carnival where we can’t look away from Lou’s stunning lack of any morality whatsoever. He’s always hungry and nothing turns his stomach. We’re the ones who have to bear the twisted feeling in our gut.
For all of Gilroy’s skill as a director and screenwriter, Nightcrawler would not work without Gyllenhaal. I do not have enough adjectives to describe the power of his performance. Here are some I scribbled down over the course of watching the movie: Intense, blood chilling, darkly comic, calculating, intentionally robotic, off-putting, eerie, lonely, oddly naïve, and creepy. In one scene, Lou threatens Nina with such authority that I was pushing back in my seat. His even tone and tight, clipped sentences make a Terminator feel positively cuddly by comparison. It’s a performance that threatens to reach out of the screen, grab you by the throat, and devour your soul.
Nightcrawler had me gasping, laughing, flinching, and squirming for a multitude of reasons. We all know that local news is ghoulish and appeals to our worse desires. Gilroy hasn’t just created a searing reminder of a sickness we allow to persist; he’s also made a disturbing observation about how far people are willing to go to achieve their goals when morality and decency are treated as obstacles rather than the foundation for society.