Directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo & Riz Ahmed
Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a thief living hand-to-mouth just at the poverty line in modern LA. But after a chance encounter with a late night news-gathering service, he begins to film scenes of destruction and violence across the nighttime city. As his work gains acclaim from motivated exec Nina (Russo), he takes on a young ‘intern’, Rick (Ahmed) and begins to push footage further, embroiling himself in an unfolding crime spree.
On its surface, Nightcrawler sounds like a rote concept with an interesting lead, and nothing more. It’s the sort of plot you’ve seen unfurl many times before, and often in better depth- like in Breaking Bad, for instance. But from the moment Gyllenhaal steps on-screen, the difference is readily apparent. Nightcrawler is possibly a morality tale, but not one about the downfall of a good man- more about the rise of a bad one. Bloom is a bizarre construction from writer Dan Gilroy; his dialogue is crimped from self-help books and online motivational courses, recited as though it’s memorised by rote. His life is empty, and he doesn’t seem to know; he has no concept of context, offering someone stolen goods before asking for a job and talking about his work ethic.
In the illuminating extras supplied with the DVD, Gilroy positions Bloom as inspired by early street crime photographers in New York in the 70s, but transposed to a recession-ridden current day and in particular the millenial generation- a group experiencing total loss of direction in their 30s. My understanding is that most millenials deal with it by creating ironic gaming Kickstarters, but Bloom is another thing entirely. To me, he’s the first fictional sociopath from my generation, for my generation; he’s the Patrick Bateman of the New 10s.
Ultimately, Louis Bloom is the outcome of a world where every action or object has a value and can be transacted, and identities are fluid around that- where a man can be a thief, then a hard worker, then a hipster, then a nightcrawler, as long as he’s contributing. Bloom nails it when he asks Rick if he turns tricks. Rick says he’s straight- but “plenty of straight guys do tricks”. This prefigures Louis‘ transformation, but also provides justification for it. This is the most sinister point Gilroy wants to make: Bloom may actually be justified in everything he does, because it’s the correct thing to do in the world we live in. As Nina puts it: “Lou is inspiring all of us to reach a little higher.”
The writing sets the tone, but Gyllenhaal’s performance completes the character’s construction: whenever there is no-one else on screen, Bloom looks blank, but not like an idiot. Gyllenhaal likened him to a coyote- endlessly watching, eyes roving around a room, and from this, deciding who he would be next. In this sense, he is both a cipher for what Gilroy wants to say about an eroding of personal and human boundaries in the world, and a fully fleshed-out character who has a blank, mutable aspect.
Gilroy has a long history as a screenwriter, but his work as a debut director opens a whole world of opportunity to an apparently very talented director. Midnight cityscapes of LA provide the film with an inseparable sense of place- important to a story centering on a man for whom appearance is everything. This imagery is aided by a fantastically crisp DVD transfer, showcasing the deep blues and oranges of LA’s night palette. Gilroy never overworks his themes, and is often content to let the very talented actors in the film do their work, using minimal coverage to let their performances shine. But every now and again, he offers a touch that underlines key moments. In one memorable scene, Bloom has broken his first big story, and after a discussion with Nina, finds himself alone behind the anchor desk in a news studio. A flat, printed version of the LA skyline behind him, he looks out to the cameras, and Gilroy pulls back, showing us Bloom through a monitor feed. This image compresses an idea driven home throughout the rest of the film- that for some, life only has consequence when it’s viewed, not experienced- and communicates it in a matter of moments.
Nightcrawler has been a surprise hit in this year’s award nominations, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t win much. It’s uncomfortable, and its focus on the media’s inherent involvement in moral manipulation won’t sit comfortably with many executives. But it doesn’t need awards to be remembered; it sits with classics like Network and Videodrome as an indictment of a media age.