When we first meet Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) it’s tough to size up exactly what kind of man he is. We initially encounter him caught by a security guard, pilfering chain-link fencing to sell to a scrapper’s yard. That he is next seen successfully having navigated this obstacle intrigues as much as it alarms. What of the security guard, last seen being taken by surprise? The question is left hanging in the air. That Lou then tries to apply for a job with the scrapyard introduces us to his precise way of conversing. He sounds as though he learned to communicate from reading it in a manual. An online course in motivational speaking or empowerment, perhaps? His nighttime hours and antisocial tics mark him out as a potential successor to Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver. Over the course of the next two hours, however, we come to learn he may be closer to Patrick Bateman of American Psycho.
Nightcrawler is the feature directorial debut from Dan Gilroy, a man previously tied to such films as Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy. That in itself makes much of this dark-hearted film a surprise, and something of a revelation. He has certainly taken full advantage of this opportunity to take creative control of one of his stories. Set predominantly against dark skies lit by traffic lights, Gilroy’s film presents us a sullied and sordid vision of LA at night; a sickly reflection you might find in a puddle of petrol (or, this being America, gasoline), oozing with myriad colours but with an unhealthy taste in the back of the throat. It’s palpably menacing and utterly compelling.
Bloom happens upon an accident by the side of the road and is confronted with a furtive business he never knew about; those titular ‘nightcrawlers’. Armed with a police scanner and a camcorder, he finds a new lease of life racing to get to the scenes of crimes and accidents in order to sell grizzly footage to local news channels, making a rival out of fellow crawler Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) in the process. Bloom is an opportunist, and so he takes to this grim new hobby remarkably well, even drafting in a gullible accomplice, Rick (Riz Ahmed).
As he grows more daring, however, Bloom finds himself ready and willing to cross all sorts of lines; rearranging evidence and even victims in order to get a better shot. His unseemly acts mark him out as one of modern commercial cinema’s more fascinating and grotesque antiheros, not that ambitious news exec Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is concerned. The less she knows the better so long as she can fill her breakfast airtime with stories to shock and frighten the white middle classes.
The stylistic overtones (including a slick, sexy score from James Newton Howard) and the frequency of scenes in and around cars have seen Nightcrawler already compared favourably to 2011 smash Drive, and while there are some aesthetic resemblances, it is not the most apt of comparisons. In reality, Gilroy’s film is far more closely connected to Brian De Palma’s early 80’s output (titles such as Blow Out or Body Double), or even Hitchcock’s voyeuristic outings with James Stewart, particularly Rear Window. Except Lou Bloom isn’t interested in saving anyone. We’re asked to enter the mindset of a man whose obsession overrides moral and ethical boundaries. The extent to which this is pushed leads to many riveting sequences.
Chief among these – and the suspenseful apex of the movie – is a chance encounter that leaves Bloom at the scene of a devastating crime long before the police make the scene. Bloom has access to an apparent home invasion and plunges forward with his camera, unable to believe his luck. As the extent of the horror reveals itself, the tension further mounts as the inevitable police sirens grow closer; we feel more and more that Bloom is as culpable in the crimes he discovers as the perpetrators themselves. And, increasingly, he is.
Gyllenhaal’s performance here might be his finest to date. Bloom is wormy, wiry, his eyes looking out from a skull which looks human but feels alien. We are occasionally invited to witness him off guard; at home watching the broadcasts of his own footage or cackling feebly at rudimentary comedies. His seems like a lowly existence. In one tremendously creepy scene he takes Nina out for dinner, proposing a deal to exchange his valuable footage for a sexual relationship. In his eyes this is a normal transaction. He wants an intimate connection to somebody but has no scope for how to naturally obtain one. His default is to make it a business exchange. His argument is rigorous and deeply unsettling.
Speaking of Nina, Russo is also excellent here. Much later on, when Bloom brings her something monumentally unacceptable for public broadcast, she is clearly aroused. Bloom’s tapes have become trophies that he brings back from the wilderness, filled with pride. It feels like a scene that could’ve worked in Cronenberg’s Crash. For a mainstream picture to tread in such ambiguous waters is fascinating to watch.
Worryingly, the sympathetic voices of reason and restraint in the film are limited and weak. Bloom manipulates Rick out of all of his moral reservations, while the sole vote of sanity at the news network (Mad Men‘s Kevin Rahm) is crushed into silence at every turn. Other movies might’ve been quick to solely blame the media for all of this grotesque behaviour, but Nightcrawler splits the difference. Whether she wants to admit it or not, Nina is as much enamoured with Bloom’s vision of the world as he is of her’s. In a script bristling with notable dialogue one line stands out the most; standing in the studio for the first time, Bloom remarks with wonder, “On TV it looks so real”. It’s an indictment of the blurred lines of our society, to be sure, but it also speaks of the disconnect within Bloom which, by the end, is scarily apparent. In Gilroy’s world, the individual is as much a villain as the unfeeling corporation.
In fact, if Nightcrawler has any immediate flaw it is that, as events escalate, we start to lose a grip on Bloom as a person at all. He becomes a sort of media content Terminator, prowling the streets for his next victim. Nevertheless, Gilroy’s film is so assured as to feel like an instant classic. One that you should place firmly on 2014’s must-see list, even if you’ll feel unclean by the end. It’s a hard film to wash off your hands once it’s done with you.