NIGHTCRAWLER skewers the news industry mercilessly, perhaps the most brutal deconstruction of the business since Sidney Lumet’s superlative NETWORK. It’s hard-hitting and often shocking, but it also works as an example of the very murkiest of black comedies.
Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a passionate but unstable young man. Yet to find a career or lifestyle to fit, he charges headlong into the morally dubious world of filming crime scenes for a sensationalist local news outlet. Lou plunges down this depraved rabbit hole, and as well as gaining a unique work satisfaction and finding his own place in the world, he brings with him an eager news exec (Rene Russo) and a desperate cameraman (Riz Ahmed) along for the ride.
Four years ago, Jake Gyllenhaal starred in the completely and utterly vapid PRINCE OF PERSIA. The only way was up from there really. He’s had a good few years. There’s so much more to his performance here than losing an alarming amount of weight. Gyllenhaal makes Louis Bloom hollow and ghoulish and wrong on every level. His eyes are wrong, his voice is wrong, his movements are wrong; all without any evidence of humanity or empathy. It’s a barnstorming performance, but it was probably too challenging for most awards ceremonies (though even the glacial Academy couldn’t resist nominating Dan Gilroy’s layered screenplay).
Rene Russo convinces as a sharp and sure professional who will do anything to keep her current project afloat, but Nina also seems to be the only one to see Louis for what he is, a valuable asset who is not only willing, but gets a kick out of doing, the dirty work. She needs him to stay on top, but spots the danger of allowing him to get too close from the start. She has dinner with him as a professional courtesy, but is plainly terrified throughout. Essentially Russo is playing a more likeable, more stable, more human version of Faye Dunaway’s character in Network. Nina may not quite be “news incarnate” like Diana, but she’s no less willing to make a pact with the Devil to get a ratings boost. It’s also nice to see Riz Ahmed starting to break Hollywood, and doing a flawless American accent while playing Rick, easily the most sympathetic character in the film.
We’re along for the ride as Lou and Rick hurtle round the city on the dead of night looking for gruesome scenes to exploit. We don’t want to look, but can’t help but share Lou’s fascination, we can’t help but laugh uncomfortably at his tactlessness when interviewing or setting up the right shot, often as the emergency services are trying their damnedest to save a life. You could argue that the plot just ends rather than building to a particularly satisfying conclusion, but the characters’ journeys have gone as far as they can go by this stage, and you could easily view it as merely a snapshot of the life and times of Lou Bloom and the people who depend on his monstrosity for entertainment and profit.
The revival of urban sprawl/exploration of the psyche 70s-throwback films in recent years has also meant the revival of great original soundtracks. Cliff Martinez’s score for DRIVE was superb, and so is James Newton Howard’s for Nightcrawler. It’s sinister and oppressive to convey the right atmosphere for the story but it’s often pleasant to listen to and emotionally stirring as well, reflecting the way only Lou Bloom sees the carnage he’s viewing through his camera. Much like Ricky sees the serenity of that plastic bag floating on the wind in AMERICAN BEAUTY, Lou sees gore, the dead or dying, acts of violence as endlessly fascinating, affecting things.
Early on, Nina tells Lou that the news only attracts an audience if it’s about bad things happening to white people in good neighbourhoods. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but nevertheless an accurate one when talking about the ever-present divides along lines of class and race in contemporary America. Writer-director Dan Gilroy clearly feels Americans are long overdue confronting this reality. He puts the ball firmly in the viewer’s court and asks us to question our fascination with the macabre. Dan’s brother, fellow writer-director Tony Gilroy has a stab at social commentary in the BOURNE films, but with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The more talented Gilroy sibling isn’t telling us what to think outright with Nightcrawler, only asking us to consider the moral implications of the way contemporary Western society functions.
Violence, after all, sells almost as well as sex does. The horrible things that one person can do to another has an undeniable draw, and if we get a chance to gawp at such horrors from the comfort of our own home, few would honestly pass up the chance. Lou Bloom’s view on the world may be wrong on every conceivable level, he may well be a monster, but he’s only giving us what we want. So is Dan Gilroy in many ways, but he’ll make us feel guilty for it. SSP