Nightcrawler

November 29, 2014
Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Nightcrawler' (2014)
Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Nightcrawler' (2014)

Lou Bloom is a true believer in the American Dream – self-motivated, ambitious, unfailingly polite and well-spoken. By his own assessment Lou is a fast learner, a self-improver, a small businessman prepared to take risks to achieve his long-term goals. “Good things come to those who work their asses off,” he chirps. He is also the most memorable screen sociopath since Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976).

Nightcrawler is the first feature directed by Dan Gilroy, who was scriptwriter for films such as The Bourne Legacy (2012). To say it is a memorable debut would be an understatement. Nightcrawler is a minor masterpiece: a fast paced character study that doubles as a satire on the nature of tabloid news. It is a thriller, almost a horror movie, but also a black comedy that has us admiring Lou’s chutzpah even as he sends chills down our spines.

Jake Gyllenhaal has always been a committed actor but Lou is his finest creation. To bring the role to life he reputedly lost 20 kilos, coming up with a character that looks wolfishly lean and hungry. With his lank, greasy hair and X-ray stare Lou is an unsettling proposition. When he opens his mouth to emit a stream of undigested management jargon he seems positively deranged.

Lou confirms G.K.Chesterton’s insight that the lunatic is not a man who has lost his reason, but one who has far too much reason. This is obvious from the beginning of the story, where he is caught stealing copper cable from a Los Angeles construction site. After viciously assaulting the security guard, Lou has the presence of mind to pilfer the victim’s watch. When he sells the cable to another firm he launches into a job application and is astounded to be turned down. The purchaser is unscrupulous enough to buy Lou’s contraband, but unwilling to put “a thief” on the payroll.

To Lou this is incomprehensible. He has no conception of himself as a criminal, merely someone who has demonstrated the kind of initiative that should appeal to a prospective employer. He has no humour, no irony, no conscience. His moral compass is not skewed, it is non-existent.

The turning point in Lou’s sputtering career arrives when he stops at the scene of a car accident and watches as a freelance camerman (Bill Paxton) shoots footage to be sold to one of the TV news programs. We can almost see the lightbulb flicking on in Lou’s mind. The next day he steals a mountain bike that he trades for a camcorder and a police radio, and joins the ranks of the ‘nightcrawlers’ who cruise the streets of L.A. trying to beat the cops (and the competition) to murders, fires and accidents.

Because he is devoid of empathy or scruples Lou proves to be good at this job. He pokes his camera in the faces of victims and police, and sneaks into houses to record the blood stains. Something of an artist, he arrives first at the scene of a fatal car crash and has time to rearrange the corpse to frame a better composition.

In selling his footage to TV news, Lou shows his business acumen going to the bottom-ranked station, where Nina (Rene Russo), the morning news director, buys his footage and gives him some hard-nosed advice. The best victims are white, from solid middle-class neighbourhoods; the best assailants are from ethnic minorities that feed a sense of urban paranoia. Nina’s ideal piece of footage would show “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”

Lou, the fast learner, is happy to listen to this advice. If he can’t find such a woman he’d probably consider cutting someone’s throat for the sake of the shot.

His admiration for Nina is more than professional. Even though she is much older than him, he asks her out on a date. Having done his homework he knows her career path has been on a downward spiral for decades, and she needs the sensational material he can provide. As Lou delivers ever more lurid images Nina becomes increasingly dependent on him, and the balance of power shifts in his favour.

He also hires an assistant in a ferocious parody of a company job interview. Rick (Riz Ahmed) is homeless and clueless, and goes along with Lou’s offer of an “internship”. The job entails plotting the fastest routes to nocturnal disasters, that his boss chases at breakneck speed. Having no fear and little sense of reality, Lou will do anything to be first on the scene. Eventually his diligence pays off and he gets a scoop on a bloody multiple murder. He knows this will be the making of his reputation and the hook that secures Nina’s loyalties.

Weirdly, we find ourselves sharing in Lou’s exultation as every ethical boundary is trampled. Although he is the least sympathetic of personalities, in the perverse context of broadcast news he is a hero. Lou gives the station and the viewers what they want: blood, mhayhem, fear and loathing.

His every manoeuvre, no matter how shocking, is viewed as a necessary business tactic. If nothing is taboo to Lou, one wonders if anything is taboo to the world of gung-ho capitalism, where success at any price is all that matters. A corporate psychopath in the making, Lou is no small-time weirdo, he is the crazy mirror that reflects the madness of an entire system.

Nightcrawler
Written & directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
USA, rated MA 15+, 117 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 29th November, 2014.