3.5 out of 4 stars, B+
Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, is a showcase film for actor /producer Jake Gyllenhaal, who I've been a fan of basically his entire career. He's only 33 years old, but it feels like he's been around a lot longer than that. This is because Gyllenhaal was born in Los Angeles, California, the son of film director Stephen Gyllenhaal (A Dangerous Woman, Losing Isaiah) and film producer and screenwriter Naomi Foner (the screenwriter of those films). He made his acting debut as Billy Crystal's son in the 1991 comedy film City Slickers.
Since then, he's been notable in such films as October Sky (1999), Donnie Darko (2001), The Good Girl (2002), Brokeback Mountain (2005), Jarhead (2005), Zodiac (2007), and Source Code (2011). I feel that Gyllenhaal has always been underrated and under appreciated as an actor. He's only been nominated for one Academy Award for his performance in Brokeback Mountain. However, with his past three performances in Prisoners, Enemy, and Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal is really making a push to be considered among Hollywood's elite actors, and he delivers in Nightcrawler. Another indication Gyllenhaal is becoming a power player, he's starting to produce his own projects. He was an executive producer on 2012's End of Watch and producer on Nightcrawler.
The film, described as a crime thriller, stars Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, and Bill Paxton. Marking Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, it tells the story of a driven young man who stumbles upon the underground world of Los Angeles freelance crime journalism. The film is also a satire of the media, as well as the notion of success at any cost. Both Gilroy and Gyllenhaal comment in the above video that they both see the film as a success story, and it is in away, but of course because it involves the American media, it's a twisted success story.
Nightcrawler's satirical elements are more subtle, although clearly present. What the story is mainly about is what desperate people will do in order to become successful in the American workplace. Characters like Louis Bloom are very common in today's society of underemployed people younger than 30. Now, of course, Bloom is a very disturbed individual, and the film makes no attempts to portray his actions in a positive light, but at the end of the day Bloom isn't far off from many desperate young people in this country. The tragedy in Lou's case is he's a loner who desperately wants to communicate with people, but everything he says kind of comes off a few degrees off with most people. He's that seemingly nice guy at work who, for whatever reason, irks people out.
All Lou is left with is rote learning, trying to disseminate information that he's learned in a way that he feels is socially appropriate, when in fact objectively, it comes out as absurd. He is a fast learner, and his amoral zeal causes him to evolve from eager voyeur into something much worse. His earnest belief in himself is both funny and dismaying, and his complete indifference to ethical boundaries makes for some slightly guilty fun. The dilemma for Lou is that he's never going to fit in with the rest of us, no matter what. Now, when I mention the film is a success story, I mean that as in the beginning of the film Gyllenhaal's Lou is unemployed, by the end of the film Lou is the owner of a thriving business, and for all intensive purposes, has "made it".
However, you could also describe the film's story as a horrific tale of evil succeeding. Gilroy has said it was important to him not to try to not put any moral labels on the characters, and tell this story as objectively as possible. This is the story of a troubled young man, with obvious flaws, and certain gifts (that may or may not be sinister), and he enters a world (American Local TV News Media) where those troubles and gifts are rewarded rather than punished.
The way these characters talk is so accurate and true to this world. Lou knows right away what local news TV director Nina (played really well by Gilroy's wife Rene Russo) wants, and even if he has to manipulate, cheat, steal, bend those rules etc., he's going to get it. In the case of local news in Los Angeles, killings and murders. Not everyday, common killings and murders, but those that put fear into upper class white people by focusing on only those crimes poor minorities commit. The fewer ethical questions asked, the better. His livelihood and her job both require an eye that some might call dispassionate, though sociopathic might also be apt. Russo's character sums that up very easily (in the clip below) to Lou in a non judgmental way, in which she compares what her news station airs to "a screaming woman, running down the street, with her throat cut." This is, after all, what Americans watch, what fascinates us, scares us, intrigues us, etc. As much as we don't want to look at the killings, accidents, death, nine times out of ten we're going to.
Make no mistake, Russo's Nina is very much the same kind of "villain" that Lou is. All that matters to Nina is that the ratings better be good compared to the competitor, or she'll be out of the job, as Lou points out to her in a very diabolical "date" they go on. Other people at the news station indeed question Lou and Nina about HOW they got the footage, and if they should show it on air, but for Nina, none of that really matters. Nina feeds the beast that is Lou, because, like Nina, Lou also has competitors in the freelance video journalism game. His main antagonist is Joe Loder, wonderfully played by a criminally underused (no pun intended) Bill Paxton, as a slimy low life who always ends sentences in "brah" (or brother).
Another notable performance is by British actor and rapper, Riz Ahmed as Lou's seemingly dimwitted "employee" Rick. Ahmed is not well known in the States, which only makes his performance even more effective, as clearly this role is a stretch for Ahmed.
Nightcrawler does fall short of a masterpiece, as the film never attains anywhere near the gravity or the impact of Network, Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, or something broader like Oliver Stone's brilliant 1994 media satire Natural Born Killers. However, it’s the tightrope that Nightcrawler walks so acutely, even as it reveals a dark strain of human nature, the one in which situational ethics are the rule, that are fascinating. In a way the film can be looked at as slick and shallow, wanting to be something more, as Lou himself, but Gilroy does an effective job keeping the audience off balance, fascinated and repelled, half rooting for Lou to succeed, and half dreading what he will do next.