In Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle desired justice. He was a deranged loner going to great lengths in order to achieve his twisted idea of the American Dream. In Nightcrawler, protagonist Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is virtually the existential younger brother to the iconic Travis. However, Lou isn’t merely looking for fame and fortune. He’s not driven to right the perceived wrongs of others. Instead, Lou wants nothing more than to be a successful businessman. He craves control, and will deceive, manipulate and exploit anyone in his way. In short, he wants to be your boss.
The most disturbing thing about Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is Gyllenhaal’s physical appearance. With sunken eyes that glare and gleam — and a feverish manner of speaking — one can come to the conclusion that this man is nuts within the first scene. When we first meet Lou Bloom, he’s on the prowl in Los Angeles — attempting to steal scrap that he can sell for pocket money. While driving late one night, he happens upon cameramen filming a devastating car wreck. Intrigued, he asks the lead cameraman (Bill Paxton) about which TV station they work for. Bloom learns that they’re freelancers who continually monitor police radios, chase down homicides, wrecks, and fires. The mercenary cameramen then sell their videos to the highest bidder. The money is not great, but its more than Bloom is used to having. As such, he buys a camera and begins to establish his “company.”
The idea that this line of work is invasive, morally foul, and borderline illegal never once troubles him. Bloom soon purchases a police scanner, and hires an “assistant” named Rick (Riz Ahmed). Rick is the classic case of a desperate street hustler in need of cash. Bloom is delusional, and recites hallow management speak as if he’s a contestant on The Apprentice. It’s as if he wants to put all human behavior and morality into rigid checkboxes of performance reviews and development plans.
Steps of success for Bloom are measured by the televised appearance of gruesome clips he’s filmed. The audience doesn’t know whether to laugh or tremble. Due to Bloom’s unfettered attitude, he’s willing to go where others fear to tread. Soon — armed with close-ups of a carjacking victim — he has his first scoop. This leads him to a local station. Tough-skinned TV director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) needs to raise her newscast out of last place in order to keep her job. She defines news as “rich white folks getting killed by poor minorities.” Romina tells Bloom to avoid stories in poor or non-white neighborhoods because nobody really cares about those. What’s most surprising about this film is the way it describes the modern corporate mentality. Any sense of morality or idealism has been drained from Romina years ago. As a result, what’s left is utter desperation. The ‘Viewer discretion is advised’ tagline works as catnip to Romina and her audience.
In the world of Nightcrawler, the idea of respect or taste in network news is irrelevant. There is only appetite and the residual ratings spike to be had from satisfying it. Recognizing an opportunity, Bloom continues to feed Romina footage that’s much bloodier and in-your-face than the stuff offered by other local crews. It starts with shots of a domestic killing, and escalates to a multiple homicide in the Valley (where Lou is the first responder). In addition to filming the bloodbath and selling it to Romina, he has the wit to construct a second act. Having filmed the perpetrators’ license plate, Bloom tracks them down, calls the authorities, and waits with camera in-hand. His drive escalates to a point where he is subtly creating circumstances in order to produce chaos and violence for which he can tape and sell. Bloom and Rick get close to enough to police investigators and EMT’s that they break their concentration — which ultimately interferes with their work. They breach barriers, and set themselves apart from teams that film from a distance with a simple zoom lens. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the motto of operation.
Behind all of Nightcrawler is the debut of screenwriter and director Dan Gilroy (Real Steel, Bourne Legacy). His full creative freedom has brought out his best. It’s helped in turning this character-driven thriller into a definite classic. The visual impact of this film — courtesy of Paul Thomas Anderson’s DP Robert Elswit — is astounding. The urban landscapes of LA are vibrantly captured to enhance every scene perfectly. Inside it all is Gyllenhaal. He transforms and transcends into this character. Many have called Nightcrawler a career-high performance for him. Gilroy provides no back story for Bloom, but it is Gyllenhaal’s performance that helps the audience fill in the cracks. Ahmed as Bloom’s hopeless recruit is a strong support to Gyllenhall, but the real surprise is the show-stealing Russo. With its psychological richness, Nightcrawler is frightening brilliant. Just like any great film, it will stay with you for years to come.
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