Jake Gyllenhaal’s scumbag crime photographer makes us confront our own inability to look away in the darkly comic thriller, Nightcrawler
Release date: October 31, 2014 (USA)
Director: Dan Gilroy
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Paxton, Renee Russo
Running time: 117 minutes
MPAA rating: R
Review by Brian Ronaghan
Perhaps you’ve had this experience: You’re walking along in your everyday life when something horrifying happens. You witness an accident, or violence, or someone being cruel. It’s so surprising that it knocks you out of your complacency for a moment. How can such senseless tragedy occur in a supposedly just universe?
But then the really scary part happens: you realize things just as bad and ten times worse happen all the time and inspire nothing but complete apathy. Disgusted that you’re part of the problem, you become overwhelmed by it all, shrug, and go back to eating your sandwich.
If this feeling is familiar to you, A) You’re a human I can identify with and B) You will get more than just a deranged thrill from Nightcrawler.
Dan Gilroy wrote and directed the film, which follows Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a petty thief who can’t get a job. Gyllenhaal plays this super creepy character with a disgusting glee that’s delicious to watch. Lou Bloom is not a nice guy and we won’t grow to like him, but that’s okay, because he’s fascinating. Early on, he tries to get a job from a contractor he’s just sold stolen material to. The robotic way Bloom speaks and his obliviousness to the context of the situation are indicative of a social tone-deafness. It’s unclear if he’s just socially awkward or has a disorder on the autism spectrum or is a sociopath, but we’re drawn in and want to understand him.
Nightcrawler’s story takes off when Bloom passes a car accident on the freeway and stumbles onto a subset of journalists that call themselves “nightcrawlers.” They’re freelance cameramen that listen to police scanners for accidents and crimes-in-progress so they can arrive on-scene early and capture footage to sell to local news stations. It’s a seedy job that shoves its mercenary nature right in your face: these people capture lives being destroyed on video and get paid for it.
Bloom takes to the job with aplomb. He studies video technology as well as the police codes for crimes and steals stuff to pawn for better gear. He’s a natural at it, as evidenced by the first crime he videotapes. While another “nightcrawler” stands behind paramedics as they try to resuscitate a man, Bloom gets in among them, putting a camera in the man’s face as he bleeds out. It’s astounding footage, and gets him in great with a local network. It’s also brazen, and we in the audience collectively think, “I can’t believe he’s actually doing this.” The cops actually hesitate before ordering him to leave; it takes a minute for it to sink in that he’s got the nerve to be so close.
This scene lays the groundwork for the film’s main tension. As Bloom chases success (and bigger accidents and crimes), we see just how far removed from normal human empathy he is. He’s meticulous and ambitious and cold in a truly alien way. The emotional distance between him and the people he films and develops relationships with has to be pathological, and whatever the technical diagnosis, it’s a fascinating pathology.
Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the uneasy feeling I got from this defining element of his character. Bloom’s condition is a lynchpin of the story. It’s played for drama, it’s played for great suspense, and at many moments it’s played for big laughs. All of this is great – it’s a very good film – but I couldn’t help but wonder if the joke was on mental illness: “Isn’t it funny how crazy he is?” I wondered if I should be offended.
Even if some people are, I have to give writer/director Dan Gilroy the benefit of the doubt. The spirit of the film isn’t offensive or exploitative; in fact it’s an incredibly smart satire in the tradition of Network. Gilroy isn’t telling a story about mental illness or even people who do bad things, he’s telling a story about news coverage and the way we consume it.
Bloom’s pathological lack of empathy isn’t meant to be a realistic depiction of a condition, but a satirical exaggeration meant to remind us of the emotional distance at which we watch horrible tragedies unfold on our TV and computer screens. The film’s very effective in this way – it makes you stop and think about how exploitative our ravenous craving of bad news can be. Just like witnessing a tragedy in real life, Nightcrawler shocks you out of complacency for a second. But then, as you walk out of the theater, overwhelmed by it all, you shrug and get another sandwich.
Can’t blame Gilroy for trying, though.