With Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed, Kevin Rahm. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Rated R for violence including graphic images, and for language. 117 minutes.
NIGHTCRAWLER is an unsettling film about a sociopath, someone unable to make connections with other people. Set in a world of local television news that is, at best, wildly exaggerated and fanciful, it is nonetheless a fascinating character study with a riveting and utterly creepy performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.
We first meet Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) stealing a chain link fence. When he brings it to an unsavory operator to sell it he first tries to get a better price and then, incredibly, asks for a job. Lou is ambitious but has no sense of how he comes across to others. The only things that matter to him are his needs and his goals.
Happening upon a car accident, he meets Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a freelance cameraman who shoots accidents and crime scenes and then sells the footage to local stations. Soon Lou is in the business himself, starting small but quickly learning. He’s also not above rearranging things to make his footage more “dramatic.” When he meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo), it’s a match made in hell. She’s a news director at the lowest rated station in town, and desperate for anything to jack up the ratings. Lou’s bloody and graphic footage does the trick. Soon he’s tooling around with his new “intern” Rick (Riz Ahmed), and taking bolder and bolder steps to get to “the next level,” no matter who gets hurt.
This is a very dark satire, and one shouldn’t mistake this for the real world. Lou wanders into a TV newsroom without difficulty and gets away with increasingly audacious acts with hardly any consequences. Writer Dan Gilroy (“The Bourne Legacy”), making his directing debut, is more interested in showing a man that the world treats as a success story but who we see as deranged and obsessive. In one scene, after cajoling her into a date, Lou makes it clear to the much older Nina what he expects from their relationship, from more money to more personal connection with her. When she dismisses him out of hand he pushes ahead, not through physical threat but through the sheer determination that there can be no possible outcome other than his getting what he wants. Anything that stands in his way–anything–must be overcome.
It’s unlike anything we’ve seen from Gyllenhaal before, depicting a character with no self-awareness. We see how people who don’t know him might be charmed or impressed, but we also see a soulless creature who doesn’t waste a moment thinking about anyone else. The whole world exists for him to use.
Russo (who is married to Gilroy in real life) tackles a not-particularly-likeable character with surprising nuance. Nina is an older woman who is just as desperate and ambitious as Lou and sees her opportunities dwindling. She’s almost as bad as him but not quite. She knows when she’s crossing the line. Lou isn’t even aware there is a line. Riz Ahmed’s Rick is the closest to a “normal” person in the movie, questioning Lou but not in a position to do anything about it.
Gilroy’s direction is slick and chilling, making good use of the shift from the dark scenes of death (preferably in upscale neighborhoods) to the brightly lit newsroom. Instead of being a splash of reality, though, it’s where Lou’s worst instincts are reinforced. There’s no escape from Lou’s world, not even for the police.
“Nightcrawler” is a disturbing character study which ultimately tells us something about people who may be far removed from the environment of “if it bleeds, it leads” TV news. That may be the most disturbing thing of all.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.