This guy’s clearly vermin, but he’s got something you want.
Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, thinner than a twig) repeats himself, often, with intense focus, and sunken, emotionless eyes. He sounds like he’s memorized a Wikipedia summary on highly effective habits for truly successful people, acknowledging the “self-esteem movement,” “job loyalty,” and making “the money to buy the ticket.” It’s all generic, meaningless statements. But no one’s interested in what Bloom has to say, it’s what he can show them that’s interesting. He’s like the newsmen he works for: mechanical and awkward, but worth putting up with because he’ll bring the goods.
Below the courtesy lies a profoundly id-like monster. Lou Bloom’s a freelance news cameraman, looking for a “screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut” as he understands it. Bloom’s job is to find terrible things in the deepest, darkest hours of Los Angeles, film them, and send them back to his local news station for them to murder ratings. He’s sensational. He’s sellable. He’s certifiable.
That is the character concept that drives Nightcrawler, the seedy satire from first-time director Dan Gilroy (writer of The Fall). A scrappy, scary loser, Bloom finds his way behind the lens. We start with the man stealing copper and fences, riding around in his beat-up little hatchback, shamefully begging and haggling at every corner. He’s a rat, a survivalist in Los Angeles. Yet it’s this desperation that clearly shows why he might find his calling videotaping gore. One night, Bloom watches cameramen intrude upon and cover an awful car crash. Obviously it’s just legal enough, and it doesn’t require too much know how. Bloom learns a quick and lucrative lesson: blood and guts sell. Videotape something awful, and people might watch it. His camera becomes a powerful weapon as he learns how to not just film but drive news.
As depraved as it all sounds, it’s not far-fetched at all. In fact, Nightcrawler is pretty can’t miss stuff.
Bloom learns the tricks of the trade and ascends to real, scary power. It’s shocking, riveting, compelling, and often very exciting. Bloom’s not killing anyone, but he’s definitely contributing to and profiting from hysteria; he’s the latest beneficiary of a hungry 24-hour news cycle.
Is a well-composed, high-def shot to bump sweeps week on the morning news worth, say, moving a body at a crime scene, or entering a home after an invasion, before the police arrive? Lou Bloom seems to believe so. Legally, he’s on the high wire, but Bloom trips every moral, ethical line possible in his process. He cares more about his shots than his own life, his “intern’s” life, his new equipment and car, or even the network that is addicted to his work. It’s a shock to watch Gyllenhaal get off on mayhem porn, and as a viewer, you feel the rush and nausea of it all.
At times, you want to wretch at Bloom’s risky work, and that makes the moments of nervous laughter all the more earned. Bloom believes in his own self-worth so heavily that one has to let out a cackle — you’re supposed to. The movie acts like a three-piece circus, with Bloom’s beginnings, his ascent, and his struggle to stay in power in a wildly exciting and shocking last act. Gilroy has pointed vision, and patience for Bloom, because this is about news, and the shameless art of hooking ’em in.
Yes, the themes are incredibly obvious (news is a nightmare), and Gyllenhaal could be accused of putting on an oversimplified geek show performance for the sake of being creepy, but those themes are magnificently done, in a sensational premise, and talking about how we digest and regurgitate the news is more pressing than ever. Nightcrawler is cynical, but so was Network, Sweet Smell of Success, or Ace In The Hole (this film’s very clearly spiritual mentor). Gilroy’s picture has a potent take on how extreme TV news has gotten: Sometimes the news has to go out and make it themselves.
Gyllenhaal is our nightcrawler. He delivers his most exciting and committed work to date. As Bloom, he wears trendy, tight, old clothes, probably affordable at thrift and pawn shops. He’s lean, like he’s been starving for years. It’s a total physical and emotional work, impossible to ignore and get startled by. Gylennhaal is a patient, but feral creature, slowly evolving into some sort of king of the night. As Bloom’s work improves, and becomes more profitable, the character also finds a sense of egomania. His wants and desires are explored, often ickily, throughout the film, but it’s a testament to Gyllenhaal’s commitment and willingness with this character.
In Nightcrawler’s most uncomfortable moment, Bloom blackmails his boss, makes sexual advances, takes her down to his level: he promises good TV in return for a lot of unfortunate demands. Gyllenhaal turns what could easily be seen as a grotesque moment into a greater metaphor for desperation in media. The tension he adds is what makes Nightcrawler such a knockout thriller, and a depraved black comedy.
With Gyllenhaal in place, the film allows you to notice the high quality and suppressed ambition at display. Nightcrawler, like Bloom, feels like it’s been building in Gilroy for years. The director and his star have something interesting and even exciting on their hands.