You may very well feel like you need a shower after watching Jake Gyllenhaal as the incredibly sleazy L.A. freelance crime photographer Louis Bloom in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal, sporting the worst screen haircut since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men, reportedly lost thirty pounds to play the role of the sociopathic Bloom, whose wide staring eyes –which I’m fairly certain never blinked during the entire film—give his face an eerie expression to go with the lean and hungry look implied by his gauntness. Gyllenhaal and Gilroy apparently wanted the character’s look to suggest a coyote—that other well-known scavenger of the Los Angeles area. It’s the latest in a series of edgy roles (in such films as End of Watch and Prisoners) through which Gyllenhaal seems bent on establishing himself as a serious actor and not simply a conventional leading man type.
The film begins with Bloom using wire cutters on a fence, planning to sell the scrap metal, along with some manhole covers and other items he has scavenged, to the owner of scrapyard, whom at the same time he has the audacity to ask for a job. The scene introduces us to Bloom’s very strange affect, one suggesting to the viewer a mild sort of borderline autism. As the film goes on we see him as talkative, constantly repeating maxims he remembers from self-help books, business manuals and Websites that he apparently explores endlessly. He lives alone, has no friends, and we find out nothing about his background—presumably it has been more of the same. But he seems machine-like in his monomaniacal pursuit of success without any regard for—or even any apparent capacity for empathy with—normal human emotion.
Early in the film Bloom pulls over to observe two paramedics pulling an accident victim from a burning car, and meets a “nightcrawler”—a roving freelance photographer who videos accident scenes and crime scenes in order to sell the footage to local news stations. He questions the videographer, played by Bill Paxton, and learns something about the “profession,” enough to pique his interest. When he brings a stolen bike to try to sell at a pawn shop, he bargains with the owner to throw in a video camera and police scanner, and that night is off to begin nightcrawling. His sheer disregard for (or perhaps inability to even understand) normal human boundaries enables him to shoot a grisly accident scene up close and personal, and when he takes it to the city’s lowest rated local news station, the executive producer Nina (played with cynical aplomb by Gilroy’s long-time spouse Rene Russo), desperate for ratings and low on journalistic standards, is excited to accept the footage and pays Bloom $250 for it. Nina encourages him to bring her more. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the motto of the business, and Nina advises Bloom to concentrate on crime or accidents featuring wealthy white victims, preferably with lower class black, or Hispanic perpetrators, since that is the kind of story that will drive up ratings.
Louis complies, and with gusto. We have already seen that neither the law nor conventional standards of decency confine him, so it is no surprise to watch him rearrange crime scenes, move the bodies of accident victims under automobile headlights to improve his shot, or walk into houses cordoned off by police tape. We see him gradually accumulate far more expensive equipment, plus a new red Dodge Challenger to chase after potentially gruesome events overheard on his police scanner. He also hires an “intern” to assist him, Rick (played by Riz Ahmed, looking like a young Andy Garcia). Rick is unemployed and homeless, but willing to work. Hapless and without any real job skills, Rick does as he is told and begins to learn the trade.
Louis, the coyote scavenging for bloodied victims, is hungry for recognition, money, and power. He has found the perfect ally in Nina, who may be even more frightening than Bloom: he is amoral, without a sense of right and wrong but only an animal drive with a mechanical mind. She is just someone like you or me, trying to keep her job, trying to compete with the other stations, trying to use whatever comes to her to get an advantage in a competitive market. And someone, thus, who makes the Blooms of the world possible. When Louis reaches a home in which a triple-murder has taken place in time to actually film the perpetrators escaping, and ventures into the house to film the bodies of the victims even before the police have arrived on the scene, the film takes an almost surreal turn. While it is a stretch of the imagination to conceive of such an event occurring, and the police allowing it to go so far, the film does imagine it, and explores what could happen in what is admittedly a very extreme hypothetical situation.
Rick, the “intern,” powerless and unassertive, is a foil to Bloom and acts as his tentative conscience objecting to some of Bloom’s stunts not even on moral grounds but on the grounds of simple humanity. “You don’t understand anything about people,” he tells Bloom at one point. Bloom answers him later, saying that maybe it isn’t that he doesn’t understand people, maybe he just doesn’t like them. Eventually, to his detriment, Rick begins to come over to Bloom’s viewpoint somewhat, but it make no difference to Bloom, who never listened to him anyway. Nina has her own personified conscience in the person of her producer Frank (played by Kevin Rahm of Mad Men), who consistently tells her when they are crossing a line—which is virtually any time they plan to use something Bloom has brought in. Nina pays even less attention to Frank than Bloom pays to Rick, and eventually Frank may as well not be present at all.
Nightcrawler is one of three major releases on screens this fall that raise serious question about our contemporary media. Gone Girl depicted heightened media hype in which an innocent man is convicted in the media of a crime he did not commit and ultimately plays games using the same media to get the shambles of his life back together. Mockingjay explored how those in power use media outlets to manipulate public opinion without regard for truth. Now Nightcrawler exposes the seemier side of local news markets using sensational tactics to attract viewers. Louis at one point quotes a study that found local news stations spending an average of 22 seconds each broadcast on traditional journalistic areas like politics, economy, and education, and more than five minutes per broadcast on crime, accidents, and the like. If it bleeds, it leads.
So is it enough to trust the media to self-police? More and more, it seems, films and television (e.g., The Newsroom) are raising serious questions about the nature of real journalism in an age of increasingly distorted notions of journalistic integrity exacerbated by television stations feeding the 24-hour news cycle. But in a country that prides itself on its freedom of the press, perhaps it is only the media that can raise the cry when other media are betraying the public trust.
First-time director Gilroy, previously known chiefly for penning screenplays like The Bourne Legacy, acquits himself well in his debut opus. Nightcrawler is fast-paced and suspenseful, with chillingly convincing performances by the very creepy Gyllenhaal and the ethically challenged (as long as we’re within the law!) Russo. A scene in a restaurant in which Gyllenhaal very matter-of-factly explains to Russo why she needs him, what he expects to be paid, and what his demands are in order to keep supplying her with the footage she needs to build her ratings—demands which include her sexual favors—is particularly troubling. That she is old enough to be his mother makes the scene even more disturbing, and takes Bloom into Norman Bates territory if we want to imagine unresolved Oedipal issues in that unknown past we’re forced here to wonder about.
The film is shot almost entirely at night, and cinematographer Robert Elswit has used film to shoot the movie in the daytime, but a digital camera for the night scenes, so that they are produced in the same medium that Bloom and his fellow nightcrawlers would use. This creates a neon-lit noir-like atmosphere that appears garish rather than rich, machine-like rather than human—the perfect background for this unpalatable story.
Some critics have suggested that Gilroy was enamored of his own character, and creates in Bloom a kind of anti-heroic entrepreneur whom he expects to seduce his audience into some sort of grudging admiration. If that is in any sense true, I grieve for the coming generation. I cannot see the film as anything but a cold and grim satire of the worst aspects of local media, and of the complete abandonment of ethics possible in this kind of world. I give the film three strong Tennysons, and a possible Oscar nod for Gyllenhaal.