Dir. Dan Gilroy. USA. 2014

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In Dan Gilroy’s powerful first feature Nightcrawler, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a free-lance photographer who prowls the streets of Los Angeles at night looking for disaster footage he can sell to TV news networks seeking sensationalism to attract viewers. If you think the film is a cautionary tale about the danger of disappearing ethical standards in journalism, think again. While it has the look and feel of a satire: exaggerated situations, overdrawn characters, and dark humor, it is, unfortunately, more of a reality show than a satire. Not only an indictment of the “fear porn” that dominates our news, it is also a character study of a sociopathic personality who reflects its dubious morality and of those whose viewing supports the ratings that keep it going.

Set in Los Angeles, Bloom is a petty thief who makes a living stealing and selling scrap metal. When he comes upon an accident on the freeway, he watches as an injured woman is pulled from the wreckage of a flaming car while a news van arrives on the scene. The van belongs to cameraman Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) who is first on the scene to shoot footage of the accident. As a “nightcrawler,” his job is to provide film clips to be shown on the morning TV news show. Looking for a new career path, Lou decides that this is a job that he can also do. As his own self-evaluation proves, he is a fast learner. Learning to talk the language of corporate upspeak, outwardly he exhibits a smooth-talking sincerity, but can scarcely hide the hollowness of what lies underneath.

Picking up a police scanner and camcorder, Bloom hires Rick (Riz Ahmed), an unemployed and homeless young man for $30 a night to help him navigate his Dodge Challenger through L.A.’s mean streets. Though Rick needs a job badly and is mostly loyal to his boss, he never really buys into Bloom’s modus operandi and becomes the only voice of humanity in the film.  Both Lou and Rick find plenty of blood and gore to satisfy Nina Romina (a terrific Rene Russo), however. She is the news director at a struggling Los Angeles TV station who is willing to pay good money, even for the most horrific footage. As Nina tells it, her preference is for violence that takes place in the white suburbs with a black man as the perpetrator. 

Her ideal footage is “a screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut.” She is also not above manipulating the news for the sake of ratings. Captured by cinematographer, Robert Elswit, Nightcrawler takes us to accidents, fires, police shootouts, and a multiple murder. In his uncontrollable desire for profit, Bloom’s activity veers more and more into legally and morally questionable territory, tampering with evidence, breaking into crime scenes before the police arrive, and more, even though his actions are uncharacteristically overlooked by the police.

Nightcrawler is fast-paced, engaging entertainment that ranks as one of the best films of the year, yet it is mostly Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance that keeps us riveted to the screen. Gyllenhaal disappears into his character in such a way that makes him truly scary. Unfortunately, however, in a society that elevates individuals without integrity into folk heroes, we admire people like Lou because he stands outside the system. Bloom teaches us that anyone can become successful regardless of their limitations if they provide a saleable product without regard for its true value or for anyone that stands in their way. Without any scruples, like Frank Abagnale, Jr. in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, he lifts criminality and moral blindness to the level of art.


Howard Schumann

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