"In order to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket."
The past few weeks, people have been hearing the name “Nightcrawler” and have been thinking the teleporting X-Man had finally bamf’d into theaters with his own origin story. Instead, “Nightcrawler” tackles something more sinister and much less moral than the heroic, demon tailed mutant. It’s about news.
We open on a dark landscape, LA asleep. Our introduction to Lou happens as he is being caught stealing chain-link fencing from a train yard. He attacks the investigating security guard, presumably killing, or at the very least knocking him unconscious. Being frank with the audience from the first frame, writer/director Dan Gilroy makes sure we see Lou come away from the encounter with a new watch, the guard’s watch, as he drives to a construction site to attempt to pawn off the stolen goods on a foreman for some cash.
Barring the opening scenes, Lou is presented as a not much different from most of the younger working generation of middle class America. He has a place to live, a television, a computer, but underneath it all is the unmistakable odor of a life scraping to get by. He steals satellite channels from his neighbors, he sews the holes in his jeans, his car runs just barely, and we never once see him eat. Most millennials have either been there or know someone who has. Lou also has an undeniable drive to find employment. He’s adamant in explaining to every would-be employer that he understands the current job market will not cater to his wants, and he is willing to sacrifice for the job. It’s at once commendable and desperate.
His chance comes after witnessing a horrific car accident. He watches from the sidelines as a freelance camera truck screeches up to the scene and two men hurdle out and film uncomfortably close shots of the carnage of two police officers trying to pull an unconscious woman out of a burning vehicle. It is at this point that the film gives a glimpse at its cards, the examination of the morbid fascination with the grotesque that has come to define media outlets today. It’s not about news, it’s about shock. Lou immediately buys a cheap camcorder and police scanner with money he doesn’t have, and takes off into the darkness.
Any kinship the audience may feel for Lou quickly departs as he gets more and more involved with his work. There is good money to be made off of other people’s misfortune, and he wants to be the first on the scene, continuously jeopardizing his safety and the safety of others to do it. In fact, the only barometer of morality we have is Lou’s new employee, Rick (Riz Ahmed), a homeless, slightly naïve kid who needs a job so badly, he accepts without really knowing what the job is. He goes along with Lou out of weakness, but he is our only reminder that there is something very wrong with the world we are watching.
“Nightcrawler” is a scathing critique of the “reality” obsession of news today. At one point midway through the film, Nina (Renee Russo), a producer at the local KWA news station and Lou’s main buyer, willingly withholds new information of an aired story because the truth jeopardizes the initial fear mongering impact the story had. Crime sells, but crime and fear are the stuff of ratings legend. She tells Lou that the bestselling kind of crime is the infiltration by the minority poor into rich, white neighborhoods. Home invasions and shootings in safe, affluent communities are the choicest morsels. We see the uncomfortable fact that the organizations we rely on for the unbiased truth are more than willing to perpetuate stereotypes and ignorance.
That’s all fine with Lou, who has turned sociopathic in his disregard for others, including Rick. It is here where Jake Gyllenhaal shines, precisely because we don’t recognize him. Lou is totally unlikable. He is creepy, manipulative, and unfeeling. He does anything to get his shot, sabotaging rival competition, trespassing in a crime scene, even going so far as dragging the body of a crash victim into a more dramatic position for better framing before police arrive. If the news outlets are the kings of misinformation, Lou is their honor guard.
Interestingly enough, the camera reflects the voyeuristic actions of its characters. We are constantly treated to tight close ups of Lou in the most unflattering light, low angles accentuating his sunken cheeks and bulging eyes. There is nothing to keep us away from his uncomfortable descent into the world of nightcrawlers. Cinematographer Robert Elswit however wisely withholds our view from much of the grizzly images of death and injury that Lou dives into head on, preventing the film from falling into the same category of exploitation that it is skewering. Instead we see it through Lou’s camera.
The largest setback to the film is that it is a bit too long. The setup takes the better part of an hour, plodding along somewhat flatly until Lou finally learns the ropes to his business of choice. Then we have liftoff. The payoff is a highly entertaining, if extremely unnerving portrait of information outlets. Suddenly all our famous anchors don’t look so clean in their pressed suits and we can see the blood under their fingernails.