The new film Nightcrawler tells the story of a strange man named Lou Bloom (played, in the performance of his career, by Jake Gyllenhaal). From the minute that we first see Lou, we can tell that there is something off about him. He is a bit too quick to smile and his friendly manner is sharply contrasted with his sunken features. He watches the world with shifty eyes that are surrounded by dark circles that make it appear as if he hasn’t slept for weeks. (And it is interesting to note that, at no point during the film, do we actually see him sleep. He’s always awake.) When he speaks, it’s in an optimistic and ingratiating tone that can barely disguise the fact that everything he is saying is a cliché. He speaks in the language of self-help books and inspirational speakers. What’s interesting is that as empty as Lou’s constant patter may be, he always sounds as if he believes every single word of it.
Despite the fact that Lou is on screen during every minute of Nightcrawler, we learn very little about his background. We don’t learn where he was born. We don’t know how he eventually came to be the person that he is at the start of the film. He has no family. He has no friends. He lives in a small apartment that is distinguished only by how anonymous it ultimately is. The only thing we really know for sure about Lou is that he watches a lot of television. In one of the few moments in the film where Lou actually lets down his guard, he tries to have a conversation with a reporter on a screen despite the fact that the reporter can not hear a word that he is saying.
Lou is first introduced stealing and selling scrap metal. When he’s confronted by a security guard, Lou smiles and says a few friendly words before suddenly attacking the guard and throwing him to the ground. Disturbingly, we never find out what exactly Lou did with that security guard but, when we next see Lou, he’s wearing the guard’s watch.
However, Lou has bigger plans than just being a common thief. When he comes across a car accident, he sees a freelance video journalist (also known as a nightcrawler) filming the police. When Lou finds out how much money he can make by simply filming human misery and then selling the footage to a local news station, Lou trades a stolen bicycle for a radio scanner and cheap camcorder.
After several nights of struggling to get some good footage and discovering that the police don’t like nightcrawlers, Lou manages to get some footage of a dying shooting victim. He sells the footage to a local news station and meets Nina (an excellent Rene Russo), the station’s news director. Nina is impressed with the footage and encourages Lou to find more. She explains to him that she needs crime and disaster footage. She needs footage that will both scare and intrigue her white middle-class audience — violence in the suburbs, families being threatened, and — most importantly — white people being victimized by minorities. As she tells Lou, “The perfect story is a screaming woman with her throat cut, running down a street in a good neighborhood.”
Soon, Lou is finding a lot of success as a nightcrawler, to the extent that he even gets an intern named Rick (Riz Ahmed) to serve as his assistant. Rick is an interesting character and Riz Ahmed gives an excellent performance, one that is overshadowed by the more flamboyant performances of Gyllenhaal and Russo but which is just as important. In many ways, RIck serves as the film’s conscience. Alone among the film’s characters, Rick has a sense of morality but, unfortunately, he’s not observant enough to realize that he’s the only one.
Lou is a complete and total sociopath but Gyllenhaal gives such a compelling performance that you often forget until Lou gives you no choice but to remember. As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that both Lou and Nina depend on bad news for their very existence and, in Lou’s case, he’s not above creating the news that he covers.
Marking the directorial debut of veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler is a hyperkinetic portrait of society at its absolute worst. As some reviewers have pointed out, Nightcrawler is often a bit heavy-handed when it comes to portraying the vacuousness of television news but then again, have you watched your local station recently? Have you looked at any of the clickbait articles that are floating around the internet? If Nightcrawler portrays television news as being shallow and hypocritical — well, why shouldn’t it? The usual suspects will claim that Nightcrawler‘s portrayal of televised media is flawed but we all know the truth, don’t we? Even if the film’s satire is heavy-handed, it still captures a larger and undeniable truth.
Not only is Nightcrawler a thought-provoking look at our paranoid society but it also features Jake Gyllenhaal’s best performance. Gyllenhaal reportedly lost 20 pounds for the role and his commitment to the role pays off as he turns Lou into a truly fascinating monster, making him the most compelling sociopath this side of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman.
Admittedly, the film does have a few flaws. A scene in which Lou is seen cutting a van’s brake line almost inspired me to shout out, “Direct to video!” because it seriously felt as if it belonged in a lesser film. (Every direct-to-video thriller features a scene of someone tampering with brakes.) But, overall, Nightcralwer is one of the best films of the year so far.