I have to admit that while watching, I wished I could be so bold.
There is a scene about three-fourths of the way into Dan Gilroy’s suspense thriller Nightcrawler during which the film’s protagonist, intensely ambitious video producer Lou Bloom, outlines his demands to his rather taken-aback supervisor. Taken out of context, the monologue essentially represents the way one would want to come across when making one’s needs and wishes clear. (Try to emulate it at the T-Mobil store negotiating a contract and let me know how it goes).
“Now, when I say that I want these things,” Lou says, concluding the diatribe with a determined edge in his eye, his hand poised in a precise position somewhere between a point and a pondering, “I mean that I want them. And I don’t want to have to ask again.”
So it is for Lou, a ruthlessly motivated young man who has stumbled into the world of “nightcrawling”—in which independent video contractors record the blood and gore b-roll of metropolitan nights for neatly sliced three-minute fear clips on the next morning’s news hour.
Nightcrawler is not a film of the moment but rather one that marks the past ten years or so of our media culture, its message almost feeling worn and heavy-handed at times. Analysts have been lamenting the 24-hour news cycle’s pernicious thirst to inundate viewers with images of misery and bloodshed for a long time; the idea is hardly new. Yet the insular nature of the movie prevents it from being overly preachy, as we’re allowed insight into how the culture affects the people directly involved— the producers, rather than the consumers, of the pre-packaged horror.
Nightcrawler is intentionally over-the-top; it might border on satire were it not so disturbingly on-point. A scene between Rene Russo’s Nina, a morning news director, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou, on which Los Angeles neighborhoods are significant to the 6AM news-hour is particularly eviscerating. Nina barks off intersections to avoid, communities in which a stabbing might barely make the back-page of the newspaper, much less the morning news. “Affluent and white,” she orders, while Lou nods seriously.
The film’s pacing feels formulaic at times; we have a couple of scenes of Lou bungling crime scenes, followed by a quick montage in which he gets better at identifying locations to record—by the conclusion of the montage, Lou is a professional. Despite this, the production is clever; as a viewer you go from being mildly horrified by the unfeeling nature of shoving a camera into a tableau of pain and suffering, to eagerly hoping Lou can get a clear shot of the couple who were just terrorized by a home invasion—all in a matter of thirty minutes.
Frankly, Nightcrawler’s central character, the amoral, self-help centric entrepreneur Lou, is what carries the movie. Gyllenhaal is brilliant; he plays Lou with a perfect blend of childlike innocence and a sinister psychosis. You are simultaneously drawn to, rooting for, and repulsed by him, and he never lets you feel one emotion for too long. Gyllenhaal’s precise intensity and creepy marketing propaganda speech patterns make him uncomfortable to watch. He lets the eeriness bubble, and his performance coupled with the palette of the film—dark, dim night shots juxtapositioned with the fake, strained fluorescents of a newsroom—lend the movie a relentlessly tense, edgy feeling. In a way, Gyllenhaal’s Lou is like the car-crashes he films so keenly—horrifying, but impossible to tear your eyes from, set against the lush noir of L.A. at night.
Nightcrawler is a film that would have been most at home in the early years of the new millennium—certainly among movies like American Psycho—right at the advent of the splintering of our media culture. As it stands in our current day, Nightcrawler isn’t a bad movie; as a commentary, however, it falls a bit flat.
Nevertheless, Nightcrawler is likely Gyllenhaal’s most memorable performance since Brokeback Mountain. His vocal and physical mannerisms are so perfected they’re mechanical—almost like he’s playing a robot. In a way, he is.