Wow…what a scathing satire Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler would’ve been in say…1994 or 1995 on the heels of the OJ Simpson “White Bronco Chase” that was ushering in a new age of television reporting. What a horrific view of what was to come…a prescient prediction of how bad it could get (and did get) if we continued down that road. Instead, it’s 2014, and Nightcrawler crashes into screens, oddly anachronistic, taking place in some bizarro-world where local nightly news still matters and no one seems to be aware of YouTube and social media. Honestly, who was this film made for? Scared senior citizens without computers who still watch the nightly news?
Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man with no back story who claims to have learned everything on the internet (this, along with his use of the GPS on his phone are the only things that hint at this being a present-day set story), happens by accident upon an accident late one night on the LA streets and is mesmerized by the free-lance film crew (headed by Bill Paxton) capturing video they plan to sell to Channel 6 (whose cool red-lit antenna atop their studios evokes 666…wow…subtle). Very quickly Lou applies all of that self-help, business 101, go-getter bullshit he read on the internet and begins to crawl the nights searching for anything that bleeds to sell to the Channel 6 news director (Rene Russo). It’s not long before things escalate and Lou begins to take drastic measures, where he skirts the law and common decency to turn the stories and events he captures into more sensationalistic leads.
Jake Gyllenhaal, thankfully, takes full control of the film. His performance is what makes Nightcrawler worth watching. He plays Lou Bloom with an awkward LA geek-chic revenge swagger. There’s something both off-putting and appealing about the way he carries himself. He speaks confidently in generalities about what it takes to succeed and how hard of a worker he is, while flashing creepy smiles and slouching his frail shoulders. You know there is something not right about the guy, but by the time you put your finger on it, it’s too late and he’s manipulated you. He’s a master of blackmailing and preying upon desperate people and doing anything to secure his success in his newly chosen field of video news production. Before you know it, Lou has eliminated the competition and monopolized Channel 6’s source for stories focused on “urban violence creeping into the suburbs” whether these bloody events are actually that or not.
Gyllenhaal’s memorable turn however is sometimes undermined by Gilroy’s anachronistic screenplay that doesn’t dive deep enough into character motivations and his pedestrian direction. It strains credibility that Lou would be able to recruit a homeless man (Riz Ahmed) to be his partner in crime/intern, and explaining Lou with “he learned everything on the internet” is a lazy way to avoid explaining his character. It’s also a bit absurd (but maybe that’s the satirical point) that he would be able to blackmail Rene Russo’s character so easily. Because all characters are rendered so cold and un-complex, some well-staged moments that bear all the right elements for suspense (like the actual filming of the crimes) are rendered mute. Also hurting the tone of the film is James Newton Howard’s terribly mismatched music score, which sucks the viewers out of moments meant to be chilling.
Not all is lost, however, as Robert Elswit’s clean, slick cinematography perfectly captures the creeping menace of the LA nightscape. It’s also nice to see Rene Russo back in a major role, and she makes the most of her underwritten character, delivering some juicy and cold-blooded lines about what makes the news that would’ve made Faye Dunaway’s Diana Christensen from Network proud. Gilroy also stages a great scene where Russo’s character directs the newscasters while the video of the triple murder is played on TV. The way the tone of the story changes and the vile images build into a crescendo of audience fear-mongering is a hint at what Nightcrawler could’ve been had it been made in the right place at the right time.
Ultimately, like the great neo-noir satire from the mid 1990’s The Last Seduction, Gilroy’s Nightcrawler seems to imply that if you work hard enough and put your mind to it…you can achieve…or get away with…anything. Despite the best efforts of Gyllenhaal, it’s a shame that in 2014 that message doesn’t carry the same bite. Like the title’s namesake, the film ends up being as interesting as a worm slithering in the dirt. Or maybe we’ve all been desensitized by being down in the dirt with it?
Written by David H. Schleicher