In Nightcrawler, director Dan Gilroy has produced a frightening re-imagining of the American Dream: Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a down-and-out young man of uncertain age. He starts the movie as a small-time thief, stealing copper wire, manhole covers, scrap metal of all sorts, and fencing it at a Los Angeles junk dealer.
But with a little legwork and some cash from a successful bike heist, Bloom is able to break into the poorly lit world of “nightcrawling,” a world in which amateur camera jocks and old dogs alike jostle over grisly footage of car wrecks, stabbings and home invasions. These spots are then sold to TV stations for prime frontage during the 6 a.m. news segment.
It becomes rapidly clear that Nightcrawler is a film with a very low opinion of TV journalism. From the young protagonist and his fellow ambulance chasers, to Nina (Rene Russo), the news director at KWLA News, Gilroy’s journalists are almost universally seedy, driven by money, ratings and the thrill of a shocking story.
In this world of “if it bleeds, it leads,” there’s a premium on pain and suffering, especially that of middle-class white families. As Nina likes to say, the story’s always “urban crime creeping into the suburbs.”
But there’s more to Nightcrawler than the broadcast news vultures. There’s something up with Louis Bloom, our driven young entrepreneur.
Blooms sees the morning news as his big break. Up on all the business buzzwords (no doubt gleaned from his online business class), Bloom would seem like a parody of a business school graduate—if he weren’t so deadly serious.
His motto is “Good things come to those who work their asses off.”
Besides this, he’s also intensely aware of hierarchy: he’s “Lou” to his superiors but “Louis” to his single employee Rick (Riz Ahmed). This same surgical social consciousness is obvious when he’s negotiating. He always knows when he’s up and when he’s down.
Bloom is a quick learner. From his first sale to KWLA, he’s watching the people around him, figuring out what makes them tick. He knows what footage Nina will pay for and he knows how to get it.
But more than that he knows how to hand his audience a killer story. This is a skill he shares with writer and director Dan Gilroy.
Nightcrawler has a unique premise, and it makes for a strange and dark film, filled with moments that will make your skin crawl.
But don’t worry, the plot isn’t standing by itself. Gilroy backs up his story with haunting light and sound, pairing spare over-the-shoulder shots of Bloom navigating the underbelly of Los Angeles with a soundtrack that seems to bubble up out of Bloom’s subconscious.
This was one of several features of Nightcrawler that reminded me of “Donnie Darko” (directed by Richard Kelly) in which Gyllenhaal plays a troubled teen inhabiting a seemingly impossible world. Fans of “Darko” and its menacing atmosphere will find plenty to enjoy in Nightcrawler. (Don’t worry, there are no metaphysical riddles to puzzle out in this one.)
Gyllenhaal does at least as good a job in Nightcrawler as he did in “Darko.” But it’s more impressive in Nightcrawler: Louis Bloom is a more complicated character than Darko. Though more unseen motivations and twisted incentives crop up in Bloom’s personality than in one of Freud’s case studies, Gyllenhaal is on point the entire time, navigating the fine line between giving too much of the character away and hiding too much behind an impenetrable facade.
Nightcrawler’s masterstroke comes when we recognize the irony lurking in a movie about a small-time videojournalist: this is a film about film. And it isn’t very flattering. It is most damning of its own viewers, who feel compelled to condemn the kind of “journalism” that Louis, Nina and KWLA represent, but are at the same time transfixed by Bloom’s exploits.
It’s no surprise, really. Part of the reason that Bloom is a successful nightcrawler is that he is a good director. And this is the scary part.