On July 22, 1991 Jeffrey Dahmer was apprehended and thus began what would become my second most influential true crime obsession. At the time, I lived in a rural area where cable was unavailable. Consequently, this turned me into a bit of a news magazine junkie and in the 90's there was a plethora of them. Sunday nights were especially bountiful and Jeffery Dahmer seemed to be everyone's lead story and, at times, commanding entire primetime network hours. My undeniable morbid fascination had not been this piqued and invested since I had gotten my hands on a thrift store copy of Helter Skelter.
This human need to see the things that terrify and disgust us has always been around, but as technology advances and our notion of what can and cannot be shown on television continually becomes more lax, it's almost as if there is no limit to the level of degradation that can be viewed while eating your morning bowl of cereal. [Nightcrawler](movie:938302) examines this particular conundrum from the inside out and it is a fascinating and humbling exercise.
Written and directed by Dan Gilroy ([The Bourne Legacy](movie:205927)) Nightcrawler is an impressive directorial debut that manages to show the ugliness of the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality while simultaneously admiring it. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a very driven and persistent man who has decided that he would like to make it in the world of crime journalism. Referred to as "nightcrawlers", he joins the ranks of men and women who listen to police scanners waiting for an especially heinous accident or crime to occur so that they can rush to the scene, film the carnage and then sell the footage to local new stations. It's such an amazingly ugly way to make a living, but are you going to try to tell me that you don't watch these stories when they are teased on the news? This is exactly what makes Nightcrawler so engrossing, unsettling and especially au courant. We are a society weaned on and fattened up by rubbernecking journalism and worse than that, we are complicit in it.
Gyllenhaal has outdone himself as Louis Bloom; having lost all of that bulk that he developed for Jarhead, Source Code and [End of Watch](movie:214217), he's now a lean, slinky, slimy guy with permanent under eye circles, an off-putting nature and an unusual manner of speaking. He is simultaneously well spoken, friendly, outgoing, weird, creepy and unnerving. He knows how to manipulate human nature and he knows that we can't help but respond kindly to someone who is looking us in the eye and smiling. Truly, Gyllenhaal's performance is something to be seen; who would have ever imagined Bubble Boy turning into one of our emerging Oscar caliber actors? Lou Bloom is a parasite, a man who makes his living off of other people's misfortune and he has no apprehension or regret about this. Lou is a winner; he knows what he wants and he will get it at any cost. Even the object of his affection cannot find a way out of his grasp.
Entranced by Nina Romina, the news director at the local Channel 6 news station, he uses his unethical footage obtaining tactics to, essentially, bribe her into becoming romantically involved with him. Played by the always sultry Rene Russo, Nina is a tough woman who can give as good as she gets and she wants to succeed in the news industry just as desperately as Lou does. Their dynamic is an interesting one; every time Lou ups the ante on the content of his footage, he is also providing a grander romantic gesture and Nina is only partially put off by this. It is one of the more bizarre mutually beneficial relationships that has been on screen in a while. Although Lou has to tell Nina what to do while they are alone in her apartment, she doesn't seem to mind it as much as she should.
Every time Lou has his camera right in the middle of a car accident, a shooting, a carjacking or any other awful thing that happens on any given day, you are keenly aware that what he is doing is morally reprehensible, but strangely necessary. Or is it? Do we really need to see the dead bodies that are found in a home invasion? If those dead bodies were your loved ones, you probably would not say yes to that question. I'm not here to judge and I'm certainly in no position to pretend that I am above any of this, but Nightcrawler really makes you question the kind of person it takes to record the miseries of life and then sell it as entertainment and beyond that, the audience who has made their job so lucrative. There is a big difference between the journalists who travel to war torn countries to share those stories and watching a former football star drive down the freeway in his white Bronco. Where, exactly, is the line between news and straight out exploitation?
Nightcrawler manages to ask these questions while also showing how, as a culture, we have come to view this kind of news as normal. The fact that Gyllenhaal plays Lou as a bit of a sociopath is what keeps him from being completely despicable. Like any good sociopath, he is very engaging and his complete lack of guilt over his actions makes it rather difficult to become truly enraged at his actions. Lou is just doing what he does best and all of us are probably going to tune into it tomorrow morning and then talk about it all day at work and then watch it again when we get home from work. Lou is just another cog in this giant machine that seems to celebrate real life violence, heartache and human ugliness.
Enraptured and disgusted all at once, I found this movie to be it's own piece of train wreck entertainment. I absolutely could not look away from the screen. Gilroy has filmed L.A. with love in the same vein that Michael Mann did with Collateral; never shying away from the grittiness, but celebrating the city's uniqueness at the same time. Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing as a morally bankrupt human who will do anything and put anyone in harm's way in order to achieve his goals. A beautiful and thought provoking film, Nightcrawler is a must see.