Let me introduce you to Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal). Who is Lou Bloom? Well, in his own words, he’s a hard worker. He sets high goals and he’s been told that he’s persistent. He’s looking for a job, and now he’s thinking that television news might be something that he could love as well as something he happens to be good at.
He’s like Travis Bickle if Bickle spent his time on the internet reading motivational articles about how to succeed in business, rather than holding his hand over gas cookers or threatening his reflection in a mirror (though, if you want to be precise, Bloom does the latter too). He’s Patrick Bateman shifted from New York to Los Angeles, from the eighties to the present day, from prosperous stockbroker to opportunistic cameraman. Like these men, Lou Bloom is a psychopath.
We know that he’s a psychopath almost immediately. We follow him as he breaks into a railyard to steal copper wire; Dan Gilroy’s camera lingers on the pristine wristwatch glinting on the arm of the security guard that confronts Bloom. A scuffle ensues, and soon after the watch is on Bloom’s wrist, as he barters with a scrapyard owner. Bloom is forthright and forceful, defined by a hollow rictus of a smile and chirpy, creepy enthusiasm. Unlike Taxi Driver or American Psycho, Nightcrawler never lies to us about who Bloom is, making no attempt to conceal the sociopathic viciousness encased within his lean exoskeleton.
I think that kind of honesty is perhaps Nightcrawler’s one misstep. It blunts the film’s satire and enforces a disconnect between audience and protagonist that largely avoids the discomfiting dissonance of those aforementioned films. This may just be personal preference, however; I’m particularly fond of films that draw you into the headspace of characters you really shouldn’t like (perhaps why Scorsese is my favourite director – he always has some sympathy for the devil when portraying his extensive rogues’ gallery of scumbags and sociopaths). Fortunately, the decision doesn’t scuttle an otherwise-excellent film, simply providing firm footing from which to observe the mayhem Bloom inspires; we’re not expected to sympathise with the man, which makes it easier to reflect upon his actions from a distance.
Those actions are an amoral plunge into the murky waters of Los Angeles freelancer journalism, where “if it bleeds, it leads,” inspired by a chance encounter with another freelancer (Bill Paxton) and assisted by a morning news producer (Rene Russo), who greets his bloody footage with orgasmic delight. It’s easy to peg Nightcrawler as a takedown of this brand of lowest-common-denominator, check-your-morals-at-the-door journalism (“It’s a modern day Network” – Everyone), but that’s a shallow reading of a film with loftier ambitions. (Not to mention that satirising scummy journalism is hardly uncharted waters – whether it’s Die Hard or Skyhooks, it’s been done.)
Yes, Dan Gilroy – who wrote and directed the film – is satirising the dying medium of television journalism, but he’s not especially subtle about the deeper symbolism of Bloom’s burgeoning business. There’s an oft-quoted (and likely apocryphal) statistic about CEOs and entrepreneurs being many times more likely to be psychopaths than your average Joe, and that’s embodied in Bloom’s whole, upwardly mobile attitude. He even attempts to hire an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), as an ‘unpaid intern.’ Nightcrawler is as much about the questionable ethics of modern capitalism – and the transactional fake ‘friendships’ that propel people to the top of the ladder – as it is about the morning news broadcast.
This all likely sounds particularly gloomy so far and, yeah, it pretty well is; family-friendly this ain’t. But it’s also an increasingly rare example of a satire that’s actually funny, provided you can get on its pitch-black wavelength. Thanks to tight editing and smart pacing, the film swerves through its diverse tones – from dark comedy to tense drama to thrilling action and back again – with the same expertise that Bloom guides his sports car through LA’s dense night-time traffic. James Newton Howard’s impressive score helps navigate the film through these turns, dabbling in warm synths and sinister strings (to nitpick, there is one scene where Howard’s score works against the script, falsely framing Bloom’s impassioned speechifying as genuine. It’s likely intentional but didn’t work for me at all).
The film looks great. The visuals feel inspired by the graininess of digital photography, as though it were filmed through the midrange cameras Bloom lugs around. It’s the stale half-light of a city at night, a dull orange hue illuminated by torchlight, headlights and the red-and-blue flashes of police lights. It has the texture of another LA-at-night film, Michael Mann’s Collateral. Gyllenhaal is the real highlight, though. It’s a showy performance that might be a (likely futile) tilt at awards attention, what with the transformative weight loss and all. But he manages to convey the totality of Lou Bloom, as psychopath and as symbol and, somewhere beneath the surface, as a lost boy struggling to fit in.
Nightcrawler’s most important shot is its opening shot. Before we get to meet Bloom, Gilroy takes us through a montage of LA at dusk, iconic buildings and rundown shopfronts alike. But the first shot is of a vacant billboard by the side of a highway, white panels garishly illuminated before the flat immensity of the desert behind. This is a great film, but the opening shot hints at what it could have been with a lighter touch, with a tad more ambiguity. The image is redolent of the core of what the film has to say about the hollowness of the modern media, the falseness of aspirational capitalism. Like Nightcrawler, it’s inherently rotten and starkly beautiful.