Nightcrawler, writer/director Dan Gilroy’s film depicting the subculture of videographers who sell sensationalist footage of crimes and crashes, could have been set in any city with a major news market. But it’s no accident the film is set in Los Angeles. Though the movie doesn’t lean too heavily on Hollywood’s iconography, the idea of using Tinseltown as a backdrop is perfect for a film that concentrates on a man willing to twist (and sometimes create) narratives for his own benefit. It’s a meta-commentary about storytelling itself, and anchored by strong performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, Nightcrawler provides a dark, ugly look at the line between news and sensationalism.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a thief who makes money pawning anything he steals, from copper wire and metal fences he rips off in construction sites to bicycles he jacks on Venice Beach. He’s a morally bankrupt opportunist and a driven hustler, constantly speaking like a human resume and angling for a full-time gig by reciting speeches he thinks potential employers would find impressive. But there’s something off about him: he’s gaunt, super intense, he barely blinks, and he’s socially inept. His lack of humanity is frightening; it’s almost as if Gyllenhaal plays Lou with the knowledge that he’s an impartial, observant alien inhabiting a human body, but he never let anyone else in on that decision. Lou finds his calling when he stumbles upon a car accident and sees a video team on the scene, with Bill Paxton snagging footage of a flaming car and the police pulling the driver from the vehicle. When he learns that the local news stations pay good money for footage like that (“If it bleeds, it leads,” Paxton says), Lou gets a police scanner and camera and learns how to become a “nightcrawler” himself.
The movie takes a little while to get going; Lou meets a ruthless news director (Rene Russo) who encourages him and recruits a hapless kid (Riz Ahmed) as his employee, slowly moving his way up the ladder. He’s like a shark – intense eyes perpetually searching for the smallest way to one-up his competition. It turns out he has a pretty good eye for the kind of bloody stuff that the news teams love, and once he starts getting his footage on TV, he becomes addicted to it. Nightcrawler chronicles Lou’s rise through this small industry for the first hour, but when he and his employee beat the cops to the scene of a triple murder, that’s when the film really settles into itself and finds its groove.
Gilroy and his stellar cinematographer Robert Elswit shoot the city at night with vivid, gorgeous camerawork that evokes Michael Mann’s Collateral, which is arguably the best-looking film to capture Los Angeles after dark. But unlike Mann’s modern masterpiece, Nightcrawler occasionally dips into predictability and not even Gilroy’s street-lit atmosphere can save the film from becoming a bit tedious at times. Still, this is a sleek, cool movie that showed me a profession I’d never seen before, and though the script falters here and there, it should still be rewarded for its overall originality.
Suspenseful, bleak, and often surprisingly funny, Nightcrawler is a stylish debut for Gilroy and a great platform for Gyllenhaal to continue his string of excellent performances (Prisoners, Enemy, and reportedly End of Watch, the latter of which I haven’t seen yet). It joins David Fincher’s Gone Girl as an October film that provides a searing critique of sensationalist news organizations, and it can also be read as a screed against the “do whatever it takes” mentality some people take during tough economic times; Nightcrawler isn’t against the idea of working hard to achieve your goals, but Gilroy seemingly wants to make sure you don’t lose your humanity in the process.[This is a re-post of our review from last week. Nightcrawler is in theaters now.]
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