Nightcrawler begins with a cautioning montage of L.A. locations, painted with hues of neon yellow and blue, turning skies, hills, and buildings into dirty but beautiful abstractions. We’ve never seen L.A. look so unusual or otherworldly, but rarely has it felt as real. Nightcrawler, like Heat, like The Dark Knight, like Blade Runner, is a city film. The city, L.A., is as much a character as as the leads, maybe more so. We come to know its character and cadence, internalizing the peculiar irregularities the way we do when we become close with someone. In every amazing, gorgeously photographed frame of Nightcrawler we feel the city’s breath, making L.A. seem alive and conscious, talking to the characters even. The cinematographer, Robert Elswit, regularly works with Paul Thomas Anderson, and he deserves a nomination. We become intimate with this city, and by the film’s end, we’re married to it. Only in a city like Nightcrawler’s L.A. could a character like Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) creep, and his sociopathic saga is amongst the hardest-hitting Hollywood parables in years. It is also, curiously enough, the third absurdist black comedy to be released in October (along with Gone Girl and Birdman). For fall 2014, comedy’s gone dark.
A neo-noir of the highest order, Louis Bloom, preferring to be called Lou, stalks the night. Both Gyllenhaal and first time director Dan Gilroy have said in interviews Lou’s a creature, a beast that comes out to hunt until dawn. Like a viscous coyote chasing a rat. For Lou, that rat is Broadcast News, which he’s recently discovered he’s very passionate about. We meet him illegally clipping fence wires, hoping to get a job. He recites self-help quotations like his Bible was written by Dale Carnegie and Stephen R. Covey, authors of How to Win Friends and Influence People and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Workbook. He talks with an off-kilter assurance that’s both convincing and creepy, two qualities we learn define his social relationships. When he sees a horrific car wreck and witnesses a freelance “Nightcrawler”, someone who uses a police scanner to follow crimes all night hoping to film and sell gruesome footage to news networks, he’s found his calling. His mantra becomes that spit out by Bill Paxton’s rival nightcrawler: “if it bleeds it leads.” Nightcrawler follows Lou on his increasingly horrific, shocking, intense attempts to capture the best and most graphic footage possible. Watching this unfold is thrilling.
What’s most impressive about Nightcrawler is that it’s the first film ever by Dan Gilroy, a 55 year old man. He directs as though he has many films behind him, carrying not just confidence, but a careful cinematic eye that makes his one of the best debuts in recent memory. There are a handful of set pieces, namely one inside of a house and another at a Chinese restaurant, that had my heart beating as fast as any film in 2014. He can also direct actors, andGyllenhaal is a revelation. Lou is a character of extraordinary complexity, not just with many layers, but he has to find a brilliant balance between being a creep and being a charmer that Gyllenhaal just nails. He lost 20-30 pounds for the role, and he fills it with oddities (like a man-bun) that make him compelling enough that Nightcrawler would have worked had he been the only draw. It's his best performance, and one of the best this year. The rest of the cast excels too, especially Rene Russo as a morning news director and Riz Ahmed as Lou’s assistant. There is a sense of compounding tension, and the final cut has as little fat as Gyllenhaal’s shrunken, gaunt physique.
Gilroy seems to possess an inordinately natural eye for cinematic staging, and one wonders if he sees Lou’s newfound talent as a crime scene videographer as a meta-comment on his own thriving ability at capturing the film equivalent. It helps he’s recruited top-shelf talent like Elswit and James-Newton Howard to compose the score (which is experimental, atmospheric, and excellent).
Lou is the ultimate, freakish, distorted, capitalist puked-out spawn of this generation. In almost every way, he is the ideal worker. Hell, the ideal American. To characterize him is to list the very traits that the above self-help books outline as vital to success. He’s hardworking, ruthlessly disciplined, self-motivated, is passionate what he does and skilled. He’s utterly morally flexible, but he has a code. It’s a simple one. Anything for success. This, on the surface, might read as terrifying (and Lou does do things that we think should terrify us in real life), but no man has ever been better suited for life as a big business CEO. We could learn from Lou.
According to behavioral psychology, every behavior we take, whether it’s walking the dog, talking to a neighbor, or entering a job interview, is based on prospect of reward. Lou personifies this. Most people are too emotionally in the moment to realize the subtext of their conversations, which, to a behaviorist, are seen as nothing more than a series of motivated transactions. But for Lou, a sociopath, there is no subtext. He doesn’t just see conversations as an exchange, but he takes it even further by commodifying every aspect of what a human being has to offer: emotion (if he knows what that is), sex, money, and, of course, power.
This is thematically linked to the film’s other primary focus, the satirization of the media. Or, rather, a particular kind of media, which, like Lou, commodifies human beings. While Gone Girl got its feet wet, Nightcrawler did a triple flip dive into the deep end. The media is shown in a nasty, supposedly accurate, light. It won’t surprise as much as upset, acting as a scathing indictment to the current paradigm of broadcast news. But more than anything Gilroy poses the ethical question of the bloody chicken and the broken egg- we want to be fed trash, so the media serves us hot. The film doesn’t pose an answer. There may not be one. As David Fincher jokes, people are perverts. Otherwise we wouldn’t watch the news.
The Network-esque commentary is old, but the context is new, and its invigorating in its poignancy. The first of Nightcrawler’s many monologues discusses the millennial pandemic, with widespread symptoms including entitlement, laziness, and lack of for-sight. Lou, so he constantly argues, is the living antidote to the disease. His boyish motto is “if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.” Nightcrawler jokes the solution to the recession is that we need more men like Lou, that we need more sociopathic hard workers to thrive. Most scary of all is Nightcrawler may be right. It’s a philosophically potent denouement of the love of looking and the cost of success, with enough meta-narrative to tickle the brain. It's a small masterpiece, and more than just a scathing review of the media or a potent thriller that never stops feeling dangerous, Nightcrawler is a fascinating study of life in the now. It’s findings aren’t pleasant, but, like the broadcast news, you can’t look away.
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