“If it bleeds, it leads.” That seems to be the guiding principle of most local news stations in America, who churn out endless, eye-catching headlines and reports meant to inspire fear amongst their viewers, with the ultimate goal of achieving ratings bliss being their feverish focus. We live in scary, dangerous times and most of us have succumbed to the endless barrage of “breaking news” stories, and the expected idea that our “trusted” news sources will clamor to be the very first to bring us said story. In Nightcrawler (opening today), we are given the most pointed, alarming glimpse into the modern news cycle that has come along in quite some time, packaged as an effectively dark and chilling thriller.
Jake Gyllenhaal turns in a career-best (and award-worthy) performance as Lou Bloom, who we know immediately has got a screw or two loose. He’s a thief and a socially inept loner, roaming the streets of LA at night stealing and scouring for a dollar. We see that he is pretty much willing to do anything. When we first meet him, he has illegally entered an industrial area and is clipping out a fence, presumably to then try to sell the scrap metal to a junk yard. When he is stopped by a private security guard, he notices the man’s fancy watch. In the next scene, Lou is wearing the watch. It is never shown just how he got it, but we are left to understand.
After selling the metal to the yard, he tries to get a job there. The foreman turns him down. Driving on the interstate even later that night, something happens to Lou that will change the trajectory of his life. He witnesses a car crash, pulls over to watch as paramedics attempt pulling the victim out of the wreck, and then is pushed out of the way by a crew of camera operators. One of them (Bill Paxton) is a seasoned “nightcrawler,” an independent videographer who makes a living by arriving at the scene of breaking news, and then selling his footage to local news stations to air.
Lou is fascinated by this occupation. He invests in a cheap camera and a police scanner, and then begins prowling the streets at night. He seems to have a knack for this line of work, and it leads him to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a News Director working the graveyard shift at a local station. Soon, Lou is investing in better equipment, and even hires a sidekick assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed). He is so good that he often arrives at the scene of the crime well before the authorities do.
Occurring mostly at night, Nightcrawler has the seedy, grimy look of an 80s noir film, with the flashy, blurred lights of the city making up the backdrop of nearly every scene. Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is quite an amazing character, a psychopathic reptile who always seems to be on the edge of something sinister.
But where Nightcrawler is most effective is when it is providing commentary on and portraying the modern state of news media, as a cutthroat wasteland void of morals or moral obligation. The film itself sensationalizes things, pushing the plot and its characters past realistic limits. The horror is that these limits have been tested and bent for the past few decades, so the actions on screen are ones we can buy into as plausible progressions. Images that yesterday were deemed unacceptable to show on live television to mass audiences have become today’s lead story. I remember back when it was national news that a child wearing a Bart Simpson “Don’t Have A Cow, Man” T-shirt, was sent home from school because the shirt represented a disrespect to parents. Flash-forward to today, where Bart Simpson is perhaps the tamest young boy on television compared to his counterparts. We all remember a time when “breaking news” meant that it was actually breaking, when a tornado “warning” meant there was a twister outside of your house.
So then, it is fully believable that the news group shown in the film decides to air footage of a home robbery and killing, with close-ups of dead bodies, and with two clueless and unqualified news anchors providing play-by-play, blow-for-blow commentary, as they state the obvious with observations like, “Oh, there is a crib. Let’s hope there’s not a baby in there,” or “that appears to be a scarf, or a kerchief, with blood on it, definitely some sort of fabric.” There is such a disconnect and lack of human compassion present. News media is constantly committing to this freakish, voyeuristic obligation to expose the public to inhumane acts of violence, in an attempt to increase their ratings and in turn, their bottom line. Where does it all end?
When one stops for a moment and dissects what the movie is really saying about our culture, the cold, brutal actions of Lou Bloom suddenly seem…appropriate. He is a product of this environment in which we live. And that’s the scariest revelation of all in Nightcrawler.
There’s not too many other films that match the tone of this one. It’s a sharp blend of social and cultural reflection, of dark comedy and of typical-of-the-genre thrills and surprises. It’s effective on all fronts, and is one of the most unique thrillers you’ll see this year. If it seems sadistic and far-fetched, then please just wake up and smell the coffee. And then turn on your TV and pay attention.
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed
Written & Directed by Dan Gilroy (directorial debut)
Opens locally on Friday, Oct 31, 2014 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli’s “Star Ratings:”
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time