Dan Gilroy, writer/director
Robert Elswit, cinematographer
Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is desperate for a job. He steals copper wire, a chain link fence and other items, tries to negotiate a better price with a shady buyer, then asks the buyer if he’s hiring. He’s not, but it’s clear Lou is willing to do anything for work. At this point, we’re not 100% sure who Lou is or what motivates him, but we suspect he’s adrift in the world, looking for his place in it. He’s gotta fit somewhere…
Then Lou witnesses an traffic accident and it’s like the heavens opened up and bestowed revelation upon him. He steals a bicycle, heads to a pawn shop, and trades the bike for a low-end camcorder and police scanner.
Lou’s first efforts net him a some cash. His breaking news footage gets the attention of a local LA news director named Nina (Rene Russo). Soon Lou hires an assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed) who’s less than what Lou wants, but he thinks he can educate him. Lou’s thinking big and he wants Rick to think big too.
You can probably guess where Nightcrawler is going, but then again, maybe you can’t. The success or failure of the film depend largely not on what happens, but how it happens and how believable it all is. Audiences will no doubt gravitate toward the thriller aspect of Nightcrawler, as they should, and it succeeds as a thriller, but as we look closer, Nightcrawler gets more problematic.
As noted before, we quickly learn that Lou has little moral character. He’s certainly willing to lie, cheat and steal to get what he wants. Gyllenhaal has one of those likable faces that we want to trust, even when he’s playing a less than upright character and a part of us wants him to succeed even as he’s creeping us out. Yet the problem comes as situations become more and more unbelievable and unrealistic. The more this happens, the more we tend to think we’re in the territory of satire. (This type of storytelling reaches a pinnacle in films like Network, which Nightcrawler is often compared to.)
Yet we’re not given enough in these scenes to convince us that we’re firmly in the realm of satire. In two instances, Lou is confronted by the police, who believe he may have broken the law (several times) in filming crimes. Just before these events, things happen that we know Lou wouldn’t get away with in real life, but Gilroy’s script seems to try to address these issues in a way that tries to cover the legal bases. Same with the issues of the TV station that airs the footage. We get some basic and brief discussion based on what’s moral and what’s legal.
For this to work, the acting has to be right on the money and Gyllenhaal is just that. We don’t learn much of Lou’s backstory, but we wonder why a young man (who really isn’t that young, maybe in his early 30s) who’s clearly driven hasn’t already found work? Still, I’d rather be given too little than too much, and Gyllenhaal’s delivery and drive come through loud and clear. (Russo is also very good, especially opposite Gyllenhaal.)
It’s also a little hazy as to how much Gilroy is seeking to say about the media and our fascination with it, but the ending really leaves little doubt about where we are as a society. I’m glad Gilroy didn’t go over the top here when he easily could’ve done so. Still, Nightcrawler refuses to be just one thing, which is admirable, but also frustrating. Part action/adventure, part thriller, part satire, part social commentary, Nightcrawler is an enjoyable hybrid that’s often gripping and well-acted. Like the accidents and crimes Lou films, you just can’t look away.