Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed
Director: Dan Gilroy
Running Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Nightcrawler, the darkly cynical debut from writer-director Dan Gilroy, is a film rife with contradictions. On the one hand, it presents a damning indictment of modern media by giving us a protagonist representing the rotting soul of American capitalism, while on the other, it seems to celebrate him as a kind of scrappy entrepreneur. The character in question is Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a self-taught go-getter who uses his politeness and undeterred confidence in order to bully his way into creating a business out of videotaping horrendous crimes and grisly accidents. Even in the film's first scene, where he's confronted by a security guard after stealing pieces of a chain-link fence, it's clear that this guy has some serious issues. Thinned out, bug-eyed, and talking in a clipped, almost self-help tone, Gyllenhaal absolutely nails Bloom's disturbing combination of boyish earnestness, reckless drive, and unnerving psychosis. Unfortunately, the character he's playing is so obviously off his rocker and the film surrounding him so keen on portraying TV news outlets as soul-sucking vampires, that the film is never believable for a moment.
Truthfully, Gilroy seems to be making a blackly comic satire here rather than a full-fledged cautionary tale or incisive commentary on how the media distorts our preconceptions and gives in to the consumer's base instincts. Still, for a picture that purportedly is showing us the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles (albeit wrapped in noir genre trappings) and the insidious nature of American capitalism, it all feels surprisingly false. This falseness, or lack of believability, has nothing to do with the subject matter, as TV stations profiting off heinous coverage is nothing revelatory, but rather in Gilroy's wanting to have it both ways. He seems to revel in the "if it bleeds, it leads" methodology intrinsic to the worldview of "nightcrawlers" prowling the streets, as well as cynically demonize the press without exploring these issues with any real insight. This makes Nightcrawler a frustrating experience; highly watchable and effectively acted, but missing the kind of psychological depth that would have enhanced the satirical elements of the premise rather than detract from it.
Though it features terrific, mostly nocturnal cinematography from the great Robert Elswit, Nightcrawler also features an obtrusive score by James Newton Howard; a loudly clanging bit of temp thriller music that also makes room for warm melodramatic swells and strummed electric guitar chords, often layered over scenes like a pounding typewriter. Gilroy's script, meanwhile, is littered with self-congratulatory metaphors and obvious points about the way we live now in the wake of the economic collapse. Though there's a streak of nihilistic humor at play here, Gilroy's writing also feels self-righteous at times, as if he's uncovering some hidden world of corruption the likes of which we haven't seen since, well, Network and Broadcast News, for starters, far better and more subversive films made decades earlier.
The plot revolves around Bloom going from a gutter-level scavenger to all-out success story, selling his footage of crimes to local news director Nina (Rene Russo), getting into some gnarly competition with another veteran cameraman (Bill Paxton), and even hiring a mumbling intern (Riz Ahmed), a near-homeless man willing to do almost anything for a buck. The scenes between Gyllenhaal and Russo in which they try to bargain, one-up, and blackmail each other, are among the film's best, mostly because both actors seem fully committed to the despicable nature of their characters. Nina's motto "to show how urban crime creeps into the suburbs…whites injured at the hands of minorities", is just as morally reprehensible as the actions Bloom takes throughout, and Russo manages to make her character's black-hearted opportunism palpable. Still, despite their valiant efforts to bring nuance to these morally duplicitous characters, Gilroy's writing gives Russo and Gyllenhaal very little wiggle room in terms of shading. As a character, Bloom doesn't have the psychological complexity of someone like Travis Bickle (clearly an inspiration here), and therefore his arc from grunt-level employee to high-ranking monstrous entrepreneur is predictable to a fault. Whereas DeNiro's anti-social misfit grew more disillusioned as Taxi Driver wore on, Bloom is a mentally unstable sociopath from the first frame, which means his progression deeper into the heart of madness isn't all that interesting.
During the film's centerpiece sequence; a home robbery triple-homicide in an affluent neighborhood, Bloom sneaks into the house and snags multiple angles of the murdered corpses. It's a chilling scene, well-rendered and searing with symbolic meaning, but Gilroy refuses to develop how such behavior feeds into the way modern media taps into our universal hunger for grotesque images of violence and depravity. It's almost as if Gilroy wants to use such imagery to entice and titillate through the sickening compulsion we have for the macabre. We, the audience, are both disgusted and drawn in by such sights, but Gilroy seems unaware of the message his film may be sending, subconsciously or otherwise. Are we supposed to deplore Bloom's go-for-broke determination in a cruel and economically broken society, or champion it as the next wave of capitalistic bravery? Some may claim the film leaves this ambiguous, but by the third act, it becomes clear where Gilroy's allegiances lie. The fact that Ahmed's bumbling intern is used as little more than an audience surrogate is somewhat insulting, complete with a sanctimonious final moment between the two that hammers home Gilroy's one-note message concerning the murky dangers of the media.
However, despite the film's confused message and wobbly tone (there's even a large-scale chase sequence that feels beamed in from a completely different picture) Nightcrawler is always intensely watchable due to Gyllenhaal's effectively creepy performance. Had Gilroy given him a character with more layers than a web-surfing sociopath who speaks like a Ted Talks keynote speaker, Gyllenhaal may very well have given us a Travis Bickle for the post-Obama era.