Directed by: Dan Gilroy
The Plot: A social misfit (Jake Gyllenhaal) with seemingly no past and no real future happens upon a car fire on an LA freeway, and while the first responders struggle to pull the driver from the vehicle a pack of freelance cameramen (lead by Bill Paxton) orbit the drama capturing every gory detail to sell to the morning news outlets. Procuring a camera for himself, our misfit enters the dog-eat-dog world of Nightcrawling. To give himself a leg up on the competition he’s willing to do anything necessary to get the best footage possible. And I do mean anything...
The Film: Warning: What You Are About To Read Is Extremely Graphic.
Not really. But it caught your interest right? Which might be the entire point of this movie Nightcrawler. Back in 1998 an LA motorist named Daniel Victor Jones set his truck, his dog, and himself on fire just before committing suicide by shotgun on live television. Whatever voyeuristic enthusiasm the infamous OJ Simpson/White Bronco chase generated in the public consciousness four years before got thrown into a higher gear when Jones pulled the trigger in front of an audience of millions.
Not that I’ve seen this video – or that I ever would. I bring it up because I think the climate of what we would constitute as news – specifically in the geographical super-carnival known as Los Angeles – forever changed the moment the cameras didn’t cut away from a man setting himself on fire during rush hour that day. I think when we failed to change the channel during the event we, as a society, alternatively changed as a whole.
Which brings us to Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler.
Anyone who sees Nightcrawler is going to first tell you how fantastic Jake Gyllenhaal is in this film, just a few seconds before they tell you how delicious and creepy his character, Lou Bloom, is. They may throw around the names “Travis Bickle” or “Sy Parrish” or “Trevor Reznik” depending on how deep and blue their cinephilia runs.
To condense this story down into a single, and, as far as I’m concerned, Oscar-worthy performance, is to minimize how great a film Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler actually is. Of course Jake Gylenhaal’s performance is a scream, (and I mean just that, this depiction is every bit as funny as it is mental) he’s playing the kind of character most actors would scalp their own grandmothers to get. The kind of role they put in a clip on the big screen of the Kodak Theater 40 years from now during someone’s lifetime achievement presentation. But as an LA movie Nightcrawler is a standout piece of cinema.
Gilroy gives us some great establishing shots of Los Angeles as the City of Angels. From the hilltops the metro expanse resembles a giant pond of flickering halogen. But this being an LA story we’re soon dipping below the light, and once at street level we’re immediately reminded that LA also contains the Boulevard of Broken Dreams. Nightcrawler, like the very best LA movies before it, is a tap dance between the fictional, botox injected Los Angeles, and crushing reality.
Oh… and to do an LA picture right, you got to have the right car. In this instance a red Dodge Challenger.
The movie opens with Louis Bloom using bolt-cutters to clip away some chain link fence in a rail yard. He’s approached by a security guard and it’s immediately apparent to the guard – as it is to us in the audience – that this person stealing chain link isn’t like other people. There’s a gentle menace to Bloom. An earnest offness permeates everything about him. He seems sincere, but he’s all wrong. For one thing, he doesn’t seem to have any real appreciation for personal space.
Before we can delineate all of the warning alarms ringing in our subconscious concerning this guy he’s on top of the guard, beating him to the ground. A moment later we see Bloom driving his stolen chain link to a scrap yard. He’s wearing the guard’s wristwatch. The fate of the rent-a-cop we’re never sure of – it’s never brought up again in the film. Lou Bloom goes on to do great and terrible things in Nightcrawler, but this is the only time we ever see him attack someone physically.
From this point Louis makes a quick leap from metal and copper thief to video stringer for the Los Angeles television news agencies, collecting images of car wrecks and fires and murders – which, in itself, is just another job gathering scraps and turning them in for cash. His only qualifications for the job being his apparent doctorate in Google search engines, a camera, his total derision toward sleep, and his inability to recognize and adapt to personal space infringements.
Nightcrawler is a film about a person discovering his place in the cosmic scheme. Once he happens upon a crew of stringers covering a car fire Bloom’s strange internal machinery sputters into locomotion. For the first time he has purpose. Ambition. Trajectory. Think of him as American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman after a make-over in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop – all fraudulent charm, but repackaged in gangly limbs and ping-pong eyeballs.
There’s an arrogant naivety to Gyllenhaal’s performance. Whether he’s strolling onto a crime scene, or into a news room, this character is absolutely guileless. It’s through negotiations with Rene Russo’s news director (a far more sinister character than Bloom I believe) that we start realizing that Louis may not be as naïve as we may have originally gathered. In fact, it’s spooky how sharp the kid is. He knows his product and his market better than they might. If a crime scene doesn’t have the right aesthetic for the savvy Angeleno viewer, he’ll alter it till it does. In fact, Bloom becomes something of an artist in his field. His clips – whether they be of horrific car accidents or triple homicides – look great on television.
In a stroke of creative brilliance Dan Gilroy allows us to finally be pulled into Bloom’s camera as he begins orchestrating what could be the ultimate piece of news footage ever (conceived) shot. The climax of Nightcrawler is thrilling stuff. In a wonderful bit of fourth wall eradication Lou Bloom’s work becomes our movie. It seems that he even understands what we want to see as well.
As far as American culture is concerned Nightcrawler feels like both a harbinger and a requiem. Any rational human being subjected to the aphrodisiacal glee of a TMZ operative reporting on a celebrity wife-beating caught on tape knows exactly the level of tragedy Western civilization is experiencing. We’re taking it a bit too easy on ourselves to accuse Gyllenhaal’s stringer of being a freak and a sociopath.
Upon reflection – especially when we think about the televised fate of Daniel Victor Jones that I opened this review with – Lou Bloom seems less like a monster and more like the only adult in a world of needy, morbid children. Children that – as long as the money is good and he doesn’t have to stick around to babysit – he means to spoil. His detachment from us suddenly seems more like a survival measure than it does an emotional disorder.
The Verdict: Unequivocally fantastic. Nightcrawler is so good I felt the need to see it twice before writing anything about it – if only because I couldn’t escape the feeling that after a single viewing I wouldn’t be able to encapsulate the film at all. I wouldn’t be able to capture its lightning in an easy-to-open jar. An impossible task anyway. Nightcrawler is much larger than any review of it can do justice. One of the best, if not most important films, I’ve seen in 2014.