Nightcrawler is a dark and cynical movie for a nihilistic age. It's tense and at times uncomfortable, perhaps because the viewer recognizes that, although the story is fiction, there's a lot of truth in what it has to say about local news and the importance of sensationalistic stories to garner ratings. As one character puts it: "If it bleeds, it leads." Or, as another opines: "Think of [local news] as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut." Then turn on the TV and look at the promos for the 6:00 and 11:00 newscasts. It makes you wonder.
The most notable element of screenwriter Dan Gilroy's debut feature is the performance he elicits from Jake Gyllenhaal. In the tradition of Brando, Bale, Theron, and others, Gyllenhaal undergoes a radical physical transformation to play the part of Louis Bloom. Louis is a disturbed, creepy character and the actor looks the part. Gyllenhaal's skeletal appearance is freakishly unsettling, but no more so than Louis' personality. His false smile, dead eyes, and good manners mask a drive ungoverned by any sort of moral compass. He's a classic anti-hero, although even that description doesn't do him justice.
When Nightcrawler begins, Louis is a thief, stealing scrap metal and selling it for pennies to a pound to scrounge out a living. One day, he comes upon a roadside accident and notices a man, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), filming it. When Louis asks him what he's doing, Joe tells him he's recording the event for T.V. news before uttering the "If it bleeds, it leads" quip. Louis is intrigued. He buys a cheap camera and police scanner and tries it for himself. His first few attempts are failures but, after lucking into some exclusive footage, he is able to sell it to Nina Romina (Renee Russo), the news director of LA's lowest rated station. They form a cozy relationship and Louis becomes increasingly daring, ignoring ethics and occasionally breaking the law, to "get the shot." He hires a clueless assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), and is soon challenging Joe for the position of top local nightcrawler. Louis' obsession pushes him into darker territory where his actions endanger lives and cause the police to take notice. But nothing is too extreme as long as he gets footage that will rivet viewers and improve ratings.
I can't say whether or not Nightcrawler functions as an exposé of its title profession. It might seem unlikely that anyone in real life would go to these extremes, but the actions taken by the paparazzi with respect to Princess Diana challenge that belief. Gilroy is unambiguous about skewering the local news scene, lambasting what it has become with all the subtlety of Peter Finch's famous Network outburst. Once, the focus of nightly newscasts was to impart information. Now, with competition fierce to capture a dwindling audience, it's all about playing to the viewer's base inclinations: carnage and fear-mongering. My favorite scene in Nightcrawler occurs during a live newscast when we see how Nina prods the anchors (via an earpiece) to ramp up the terror and paranoia associated with one of Louis' clips. This is what news has become.
Nightcrawler's episodic narrative occasionally runs afoul of some pacing issues and the relationship between Louis and Rick, while illustrating Louis' less appealing interpersonal characteristics, doesn't work, primarily because Rick seems more like a writer's construct than a real person. The film is being marketed as a thriller, but it's more of a character piece, exploring the mindset of someone who is at best a misanthrope and at worst a sociopath. This isn't fun, escapist entertainment but, when it works, it's fascinating and compelling and makes us take a hard look at what TV news is selling and where it's getting the product.
© 2014 James Berardinelli