Vafa Motamedi looks into the dark and depraved world of Nightcrawler
A lone figure wanders through the night in search of death and destruction. He has no interest in causing it, only observing and filming the car crashes, shootings and blazes that overrun the city of LA. After a nights work he edits the footage he has filmed and delivers it to a local TV news station who buy it off him in a desperate attempt to boost their ratings. Rinse and repeat every night. His name is Louis Bloom and he considers himself a reputable businessman.
Such is the premise of Nightcrawler, the debut feature of writer-director Dan Gilroy and what an astounding debut it is. Both scary and funny in equal measure, the film is a study of a highly driven yet disturbed man and what he is willing to do to attain his career goals. It’s also gives a fascinating insight into these real-life ‘nightcrawlers’ who film disasters and crimes in order to sell them on. The film uses them as a metaphor for our society’s depraved voyeurism and our love-affair with rampant careerism.
Jake Gyllenhaall’s portrayal of Bloom is one of the great performances of the past few years. Bloom is a monster, a dead eyed, nasal voiced psychopath who comes across as less human and more of an alien donning the skin of one. His physical gauntness belies his mental emptiness- there is something missing within him and though he wears the veil of polite awkwardness, beneath it is a fountain of hate and dangerous ambition. Gyllenhaall sells all this perfectly. He is terrifying because he is unknowable, Gyllenhaall rarely, if ever, letting us in. It might be too dark for the Academy to honour but I’d be surprised if there were a more deserving winner for Best Actor this year.
Elsewhere on the acting front we have Rene Russo and an unrecognizable Riz Ahmed. Both are stellar as the boss of the news programme and as Bloom’s assistant respectively, the former a chilling yet sympathetic portrayal of a desperate woman and the latter serving as the film’s compromised moral core. Bill Paxton is in it too but don’t hold that against it.
Aside from Bloom, the film’s greatest strength is its skill in balancing both razor-sharp satire and knuckle whitening tension (the climax is a master class in tension and action). The film is an acidic condemnation of our culture’s preoccupation with violence and the suffering of others. On a daily basis we watch the TV, desperate for our next fix of real life horror. When someone is brutally murdered we seem to get a perverse kick out of it, like we would huddled round the campfire listening to old ghost stories. But, as Nightcrawler maintains, these aren’t just stories. These are real people and we treat their pain and deaths lightly at the expense of our own morality and compassion.
The film also lampoons 24 hour news and highlights quite succinctly, the ethical dilemma that surrounds it. Is it possible to balance journalistic integrity with the desire to gain more ratings? Does journalistic integrity exist when truth-telling becomes big business? Is there any truth to be found or are we being told what we want to hear? The film asks all these questions and what’s most impressive is that it doesn’t shy away from answering them. In fact, the film wears its condemnation of its subject proudly on its sleeve, though never dipping into obnoxiously didactic territory.
The final target of satire is that of the new strain of ultra-individualistic capitalism that has emerged in recent years. Bloom is obsessed with beginning a career. He doesn’t care what it is in, he just wants one. He speaks in comically empty business jargon as if the only things he’s ever read are self-help books. He slaves away on online business courses, trapped in the delusion that what he is doing is a legitimate business. We laugh at him for this but gradually these laughs grow silent as the film progresses when Bloom’s fantasies slowly begin to come true.
All this naturally harkens back to two Scorcese/De Niro films: Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, both of which feature angry obsessive men wandering the streets of a metropolis alone in search of a seemingly unattainable dream. Yet while Di Niro’s protagonists are, for the most part, vilified and rejected by the world around them, Bloom finds himself validated; he may be a monster but he’s a valuable monster. The worlds of 24 hour news and business need people like him to survive. Ultimately though, like all our other institutions, we only get the news and the businessmen we deserve. Gilroy’s fantastic tour de force is a mirror and though we may not like what we see, we can’t help recognize its dark familiar face.