Jake Gyllenhaal navigates the exploitative world of LA’s news stations in this darkly comic thriller.
‘If it bleeds it leads.’ These words are offered as sage advice to protagonist Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) by one of the titular nightcrawlers – men (and it does seem to be an exclusively male occupation) who monitor police scanners and chase car accidents in the hope of selling gruesome tape to local news stations. One can easily imagine that in this repulsive rhyming truism was the bit of grit around which long time industry journeyman Dan Gilroy (screenwriter and debutante director) created a hideous pearl. All that is necessary for the plot is that sinewy, upwardly mobile scumbag Lou takes these words to heart, as he had with buzzword heavy business spiel from an online course. Everything else, from hilarious and cringe inducing pay negotiations, to wild car chases (the best since indie darling / cousin film Drive) to the genuinely shocking third act stems from the main character’s overly literal interpretation of ‘go get’em’ pep talks and an american dream that has warped from a pursuit of happiness into a yawning chasm he will fill at any cost. In an era of soporific teenage cancer-porn-exploitation weepathons, it’s good to be reminded that tragedy is a word with actual meaning, and not just something that happens to hollywood plain high-schoolers in Iowa.
I can’t really tell you that Gyllenhaal is good in this film, because Gyllenhaal is this film. Your enjoyment is pegged exactly to how you feel about the main performance. Thankfully it is a brilliant turn, at once lithe and threatening, at times sympathetic and at others monstrous to the point of being alien. He brings a near unbearable tension to every scene, inhabiting the LA night like he had never seen the sun. The world famous street lights cast a jaundiced pall over his gaunt face (he lost 20lbs for Nightcrawler in a feat of Bale-esque metabolic shenanigans), and reflect in his sunken, dull eyes. Performances elsewhere are good, but occasionally suffocate in the airless atmosphere created by Gyllenhaal’s manic intensity. The standout co-star performance must surely go to Brit Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, Ill Manors) as street hustler and possible prostitute Rick who falls into Lou’s orbit with disastrous consequences. Ahmed conveys Rick’s vulnerability perfectly (nails the accent too) and, as he careers towards the precipice with Lou does an excellent job of revealing the negative space that separates people like Lou from the rest of us.
The film (particularly the aforementioned chase sequences) looks great, especially when bearing in mind the $8 million budget. It’s possible to counter that it’s difficult to set a film in LA at night and not have it look great – this is probably true. Nevertheless the camera work (and the camera work capturing the camera work) is taut and never intrusive, and for a film like this that is perfectly adequate. Similarly the soundtrack does its work – all washed out guitars and propulsive electronic beats – and little more. This isn’t damning with faint praise. Nightcrawler is a ‘film’ film. It gets in, tells a story by using all the elements available to the medium, and gets out before it overstays its welcome. No one part overextends itself to the detriment of the whole project. On a technical level it is very well formed and executed.
‘The closer you look, the darker it gets.’ The tagline for Nightcrawler does a good job of encapsulating the experience of the movie (as tagline are wont to do), but it also describes some of the conceptual difficulty around the film’s message. Gyllenhaal gave an interview after release laying culpability for the media’s callous and exploitative practises at the foot of the viewer. Whether this is true, or the counterfactual that as viewers and consumers of news we are taught what to want and what to fear by the news itself, I cannot say. The film itself only exists because these practices exist after all. Love them or hate them noise rap group Death Grips encapsulated this hall of mirrors meta-nightmare nicely on their track ‘Artificial Death In the West’ when they sang (shouted) “Watching me watching me watch them watch me”. The tagline is probably on to something – there are films existent and yet to be made that explore our complex and co-dependent relationship with the nightmarish aspects of news media, and this perhaps should not be one of them. It is too good a film, a story, to drag down into a well of well intentioned handwringing and beat to death with a truncheon made of pop sociology and unwieldy metaphors (guilty). Watch it, and try not to look away.