Scott F. Evans
This time of year harkens a film selection of more mature, often challenging subjects. Gone are the loud, empty blockbusters based on comic books, toys and schlocky cartoons from the 1980’s. The industry comes off its sugar high, and replaces mindless popcorn selections with rougher films (made for a tenth of the budget) designed for smaller, more discriminating audiences.
No film released so far this year better fits that description than first time director Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. Made for less than ten million dollars, it’s a nasty little exploration of the seedier side of freelance news photography.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, a sociopath driven by a relentless desire for success. Our first encounter with Bloom finds him in the midst of a petty crime. From his very first action, we’re aware that this is a man with little to no concern of the means to an end. Even after he’s refused steady employment by the very person he’s stealing for, Bloom is unwavering in his quest for success.
Bloom finds his calling after a chance meeting with ‘Nightcrawler’ Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). The term applies to freelance videographers who roam the nighttime streets of Los Angeles, armed with cameras and police scanners. They respond to every emergency call that comes across; accidents, fires, shootings… and record the scenes to sell to the news station that will pay the most.
The practice has instant appeal to Bloom, although he has no formal training and no equipment. He finds his way into the eye-line of local News Director Nina Romina (Rene Russo), and forges a relationship that will take both further down the rabbit hole than even the audience might be willing to go.
As a Nightcrawler, Bloom violates every legal, ethical and journalistic standard on the books. But he gets the best shots, and makes the most of the hand he’s been dealt. His go-getter attitude is rewarded with increasing pay, exposure, and notoriety. Bloom believes in the age old mantra that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. His disconnect with any semblance of morality or ethics only serves to strengthen that ideal. With the help of his trusty assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed), Bloom is ready to do any and everything to achieve his objective.
Gilroy gets excellent performances out of his entire cast, especially Gyllenhaal. He plays Bloom with just the right amount of subdued menace, so that he’s never outright unlikeable. The truth is, it doesn’t really matter if you like him or not. Bloom is such a fascinating character that you can’t stop watching him. He’s creepy in that odd — but not quite sinister — way. So it doesn’t strain the film’s credulity when so-called ‘normal’ characters have to interact with him.
Gyllenhaal lost 20 pounds to play Bloom, making him look hungry… but not unhealthy. He cares little about the well-being or success of others. Yet he smiles and uses slogans and motivational rhetoric, to persuade the desperate to invite him into their lives. There’s only one forced moment in this performance, when the character has a brief psychotic meltdown. This bit feels tacked on, like there was a studio mandate that Bloom must show more surface traits of being ‘crazy.’ It’s an unfortunate distraction in an otherwise flawless performance.
Cinematographer Robert Elswit shoots nighttime Los Angeles so beautifully, you almost forget that you’re watching such an ugly depiction of the town. Like the performances, Elswit’s work is subtle, with no showy angles or trendy color grading. It’s worth noting that a film about freelance videographers, whose camera work tends to focus more on speed and quantity, is shot so traditionally. It would have been easy for Gilroy and Elswit to shoot the film verite style to match the work of the subject. Instead, every shot is carefully framed and the editing is unobtrusive.
The greatest takeaway is that on its surface, Nightcrawler looks like a satire on modern media. But beware the distraction. No news agency (particularly in Market #2 Los Angeles) would consider putting Bloom’s graphic footage on the air. Mainstream news stations are corporate owned and play it safe. FCC fines are massive, and could potentially ruin a broadcaster.
In reality, Nightcrawler is about our obsession with faux self-made success and the hyper-aggressive manner in which we pretend to approach life. It’s about how too many of us lack humility and suffer from delusions of grandeur. It’s about how, nearly 30 years after Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, many Americans still worship at the altar of Gordon Gekko. Our collective views have changed on the market, but we’re still firm believers in self-aggrandizement. Lou Bloom is grinning at us every time we egocentrically refer to ourselves as beasting through life. Think about it.