As perfect a film within the art of psychological horror. Nightcrawler is a dark character study of a man who is morally wrong in every scene of the film, is deceptively harmless, and to us we are aware he is a teeming sociopath. He is Lou Bloom, and he is played by Jake Gyllenhaal in what could be the best performance of the decade. What is disturbing and upsetting about the film is that we have a society that fosters sociopathic types like Lou and allow them to acquire financial success in his chosen business simply because there is always a marketplace for him to sell trash T.V. news.
This is not a “thriller” in which there are systematic plot engineered murders throughout the way, nor is it a traditionally conventional plot. There, it’s going to lose the average schmoes who go to the movies that want to sit there anticipating nothing but explosive set-pieces. I however had goosebumps, and my heart was pounding every step of the way. Lou is morally wrong — he lives under his own synthetic universe where ordinary emotions do not apply — yet I also was charged with fascination to see how clever the film would be about letting him get away with what he gets away with.
Late at night, Lou stumbles upon a fiery wreck off the side of the road and observes a freelance cameraman (Bill Paxton) capture the footage. Lou decides to become a freelancer just like him, acquiring his own cheap camera, following the police scanners, racing to crime scenes, and then selling footage to KWLA news director Nina (Rene Russo, her best performance). Lou is a “quick learner.” He tells everybody that, then scorns you for not paying attention that he previously said that. At each new crime scene, Lou gets closer and nosier, crossing the police lines and ethical lines, and not giving a damn either. Later, he gets lucky at arriving at the crime scenes faster than the police, and freely manipulates the scene for camera appeal. He also hides footage that would qualify as police evidence.
Lou is good with being “friendly,” but he is the kind of guy who doesn’t need friends. He even tells one that it’s a mistake to think he needs to understand human beings, not when in his admittance, he doesn’t like human beings. He hires Rick to be his assistant (Riz Ahmed plays him, the superb actor from “Trishna” and “Four Lions”) who is desperate enough to work for thirty dollars a night, so desperate that as a straight guy who might have had to do [sex] tricks in the recent past. The film withholds pivotal dialogue of what Rick really thinks of Lou, and of the morals of this work, until the final act. This isn’t a fault in screenplay absentminded-ness, this is how suspense is generated – by making us wait for answers – in how we wonder why a total loser like Rick is able to put up with Lou for as long as he does without demanding a raise.
There are Gyllenhaal monologues where I am beholden in astonishment in how the actor pulled it off. Gyllenhaal is able to communicate lucidly in his negotiations with a number of people, Nina most particularly, with obscene demands that make sense in climbing the social ladder yet at the same time we’re aware of his demented ambitions and sociopathic manipulation of others under the surface. The issues usually concern the “graphic” nature of footage that will be run on air, the kind of lowest denominator infotainment watched by the lower masses who watch “Jerry Springer” religiously. He wants to get paid for the correct going rates particularly if the station he’s selling for them is starved for bigger ratings.
The Lous’ of the world are “motivated,” “driven,” “destined.” They talk to you enthusiastically about cringe-worthy subjects, talk circles around you, all with the objective to one-up you if you counter an argument. They aim to embarrass you. They have no shame. Lou definitely exploits the suffering of others in this film, and even if he doesn’t always initiate accidents he sparks a tumble of worse accidents to follow. And Russo’s Nina, with ethics degraded to the same low depths to Lou’s standards (ambiguity floats in the air by not showing us everything between them), will air any of those accidents on air as long as they meet the legal precedents. This film is not one iota stupid at what those legal precedents are.
“Nightcrawler” is too good of a film – it has such a powerful sense of dread and queasiness that the unaccustomed viewer will be repulsed. Dan Gilroy, screenwriter of “The Bourne Legacy” and “Two for the Money,” makes his directorial debut. The writing by him, as you’ve assumed from me, is perfect. Also perfect is the visual look that he’s achieved, which has lurid nightscapes worthy of “Taxi Driver” (1976), which is of course itself a landmark masterpiece.
117 Minutes. Rated R.
PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER / CEREBRAL / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Street Smart” (1987); “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (1990); “To Die For” (1995); “15 Minutes” (2001).
Note: In defense of my Film Cousins this time, “Henry” and “To Die For” are what I declare great films, while the other two are flawed and only good part of the time.