Nightcrawler follows the alarming and seemingly irresistible rise of Louis (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom we first meet as a thief roaming Los Angeles at night, selling purloined metals for cash, but with his eyes open for a better career opportunity. This arrives when he witnesses an independent news cameraman (Bill Paxton) at work as a stringer, or ‘nightcrawler’, who feeds the local news media’s ‘if it bleeds it leads’ culture with footage of car crashes, calamities and crime. Inspired, Louis acquires a police radio scanner and a camera and sets up in business. He quickly establishes a useful connection with Nina (Rene Russo), a desperate TV executive on a minor network, hires homeless man Rick (Riz Ahmed) as navigator and assistant, and begins to make swift progress in his chosen field, a progress assisted immeasurably by his nature as a high-functioning sociopath who will do anything to get the right shot…
Dan Gilroy‘s film is at once a pitch-black comedy, a thriller and a character study of another of God’s lonely men, a kind of mash-up of Taxi Driver and Network, though it’s a little broader and less surprising than either of those 70s landmarks. It has car chases and shootouts, and edge-of-your-seat business, but also offers a concentrated skewering of TV news values and corporate culture. Louis is left in no doubt what constitutes ‘good’ footage to Nina: ‘a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut’, the victims should be affluent and white, the perpetrators should be urban and poor. Falling crime figures should not get in the way of the suggestion that you and your cosy world could be next. He is, of course, fully prepared to give her what she wants.
The films targets are not particularly fresh, it strains credibility at times, you can hear the gears whirring, and I found myself annoyingly ahead of the plot on occasion, but this doesn’t really matter much when Louis is in full flow, which is often. Visually, the film is impressive, offering us an LA heavy on the haze, a world of greens and oranges and flashing blue light, but its chief strengths lie in dialogue and performance. And the dialogue is extraordinary. Louis talks fluent job interview-ese, he talks like a motivational speaker, like someone who has read every ‘top 10 tips of successful businessmen’ article out there and has thoroughly ingested them into his being. Every conversation is a negotiation, a sale, He never swears or seems to blink. He is all about leverage and power. But the surface charm and slick fluency barely conceal a disturbing absence. He is a nightmare cousin to Tracey Flick from Alexander Payne’s Election, where the Horatio Alger attributes of initiative, hard work and ‘can do’ spirit, the drive to be ‘successful’, are all used in the service of an utter moral vacuum. He is a fast learner. He knows the value of research. And his time has come. There’s a devastating restaurant scene with Nina, where he cajoles and threatens his way into her life with a dizzying fluidity, culminating in his dead-eyed delivery of the line ‘a friend is a gift you give yourself,’ which must be one of the creepiest moments in modern cinema. And his interactions with Rick (the only sympathetic human in this sea of snakes), where he increasingly refers to himself with the corporate ‘we’ are a masterclass in passive aggressive bullying and one-upmanship.
It’s a superior piece of Hollywood filmmaking with something pleasingly queasy and upsetting at its core. Robert Elswit’s photography works wonders in a film that is largely about the process of filming. Gyllenhaal gives the performance of a lifetime, and Russo and Ahmed do great work. It’s smart, nasty stuff.
Watch the trailer: