Pick of the Week: Nightcrawler
A gritty, tantalising film, this Jake Gyllenhaal starring Academy Award nominee is a searing indictment of the media industry and its toxic relationship with consumer demand. Disguised as a thriller, it tells the story of 'nightcrawler' Lou Bloom, a freelance news videographer who is willing to go the extra mile to successfully achieve his business goals.
In his thrilling directorial debut, screenwriter Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy) presents to us his morbidly fascinating Anti-Hero, Louis “Lou” Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who, right from the outset, comes across as a loose cannon. We first meet Lou as a petty thief selling his hauls in a scrap yard. He’s looking for a job, and being the enterprising and well spoken - if slightly irksome - guy that he is, before the film completes its first 10 minutes, Lou has found something that both interests him and looks promising - the competitive world of television news journalism. He becomes a ‘nightcrawler’ or ‘stringer’ i.e. someone who scouts sites of crime and/or accidents to record footage which is then sold to local news networks for their morning shows. He discovers he has a knack for it, learns the trade quickly and even finds a consistent buyer for his ‘brand’ of footage in no time - a modern day freelance success story!
But does the truth, spun a particular way, remain the truth? Or can the spin, slight as it may be, turn it into something entirely new? Lou Bloom illustrates for you, not the science of entrepreneurship as he might have you believe, but rather, the art of manipulation. As he begins to get more intricately involved in the crimes he is chronicling, Bloom begins to decisively, calculatingly and with just the right amount of magnetism, control and manipulate the angle, not unlike the multi-billion dollar news media industry he is such a fractional but crucial part of. As is made very clear to him by Nina (Rene Russo), the ratings-hungry chief editor of the news network he sells his footage to; the crimes they like are against suburban and preferably rich white people - it’s only a real story if it’s against the idyllic majority their viewers identify with.
Against this ethically murky backdrop and despite him being knee deep in it, Lou Bloom makes for a fascinating and impressive 'dark' character. It’s impossible not to be awed by him when he talks in what feels like HR-approved motivational verbatim to convince people that he is exactly who they are looking for, the key to unlocking their professional success. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance elevates Bloom’s disturbing but brilliant loner to a ruthlessly captivating character, his sunken eyes, striking unblinking gaze which he maintains through the whole film, and earnest sincerity creating an inexplicable, unnerving bond with Lou. Riz Ahmed also creates the perfect foil character in Rick, his down and out, vulnerable but committed assistant, who becomes increasingly sucked into Lou’s world, unable to break away while Rene Russo hits all the right notes as his ‘trophy,’ Nina, who goes from being impressed, to dominated by, to completely devoted to Lou Bloom.
Nightcrawler is a film that thrives on the vibe it creates. It’s shot in Los Angeles in upto 80 different locations and about 80% of the film is set at night. The speeding car sequences of Lou racing against time to reach the most ‘exciting’ accident of the evening makes it feel like the city actually wakes up at night. There has been much debate around Nightcrawler being a comedy, with Gyllenhaal claiming at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where the film premiered, that "Dan Gilroy and I were laughing pretty much the whole movie," and as it unravels you begin to understand why. Here is a film about unethical journalism and voyeuristic consumer culture and yet, the gritty cinematography by Robert Elswit and background score by James Newton Howard romanticises the landscape of the city in such sharp contrast to Lou’s questionable actions that you can’t help but wonder at the irony.
In one scene, Lou reaches the location of a car accident in an affluent neighbourhood before the police or the paramedics arrive. As he closes in towards the unconscious victims, the background music is slow and soothing. When Lou realises he’s hit the jackpot for the night, he drags the bloody corpse of one of the victims to a better position for his frame, heads over to a better vantage point and shoots the whole scene with an enthralled expression, all while the music crescendos into an inspirational melody. After all, he does consider himself an artist at work! At this point the audience is bound to be torn; should we be disgusted with Lou or marvel at the brazen audacity of what’s unfolding on the screen?
Nightcrawler is not a moralist tale making hyperbolic claims about ‘the evils of society’. The film doesn’t judge Lou for being indifferent to, or even enjoying the violence he witnesses. If it did, it would have to judge us, the viewers too. At the same time, it does not attempt to humanise Lou either. He seems to enjoy making money by shooting vulgar footage of gory accidents and we don’t get any backstory or explanation about why he does. And why should we? How are we or the elite of LA, different from Lou? Mass media is often (and rightly so) judged for being an unethical industry that capitalises on violence, but we are quick to overlook how we too partake in keeping this kind of consumer culture alive. One wonders whether all the sanitisation of violence television news channels claim to abide by - blurring out gory footage or providing trigger warnings - is not in fact a type of ‘grooming’ of it, so that it can allow us to continue in our self righteousness.
Self righteousness, after all, forms the fabric of all the multimedia ‘content’ being consumed today. Whether it’s unverified gossip on WhatsApp or pictures from the untimely death of an actor, we lap up the conspiracy theories and the visual ‘proofs’ flowing in, so long as our engagement with it can be presented in a moral and sympathetic way - be it by writing damning social media posts, opinion pieces or casually judging those less covert about their curiosity. Unlike its ugly cousin however, good cinema challenges such unidimensional sanctimonious experiences. Aptly so, Nightcrawler leaves you with a nagging, ghastly feeling that it might just be more liberating to live the freewheeling life of Lou Bloom.
Now streaming on Netflix.
Dan Gilroy is a screenwriter and director best known for Nightcrawler for which he received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. His other screenwriting credits include Freejack (1992), Two for the Money (2005), The Fall (2006), Real Steel (2011), and The Bourne Legacy (2012) - the last in collaboration with his brother Tony Gilroy