The dark and sordid world of American news coverage, on a frontline level, seems like fertile ground to find stories to tell of a dark psychological bent, and into the breach to make the attempt steps Jake Gyllenhall, a talented actor no doubt, and I was hoping that Nightcrawler would justify the mountain of critical praise that I had witnessed, for both the film and the leading performance. Sociopath’s are hard to pull off in film though, and I was wondering whether it would be the Gyllenhall of Jarhead, Brokeback Mountain and End Of Watch who would show up, and not the actor who strolled through The Prince Of Persia, The Day After Tomorrow or Donnie Darko (overrated!).
Lou Bloom (Gyllenhall) is an intensely determined figure, frequently turning to criminal activities as he struggles to find success in the murkier parts of Los Angeles. After witnessing a freelance cameraman (Bill Paxton) shooting footage of a car crash for a news channel, Lou launches into a career in “nightcrawling”: finding the grizzliest crime scenes in the LA night time and getting the best footage to sell. With the encouragement of an amoral news director (Rene Russo) and the assistance of a desperate for cash “intern” (Riz Ahmed), Bloom’s sociopathic nature drives him to greater and greater extremes in the search for the perfect shot, film and crime.
Nightcrawler might not be quite what you expect – the promotional material made it look like anything from horror to black comedy – but what it is, is immensely enjoyable and accomplished filmmaking. With a singular focus on the character of Lou Bloom, director Dan Gilroy takes us on this warped and uncomfortable journey, that encapsulates the darker parts of the “American Dream” and the sorry state of the modern news media. It has its laughs – good ones too – and its moments of horror, but Nightcrawler is, at its core, an intense psychological study of its main character and the “if it bleeds, it leads” culture of the American media.
And it is uncomfortable viewing insofar as our “hero” is an unabashed antagonist right from the start, as we see him stealling copper wire and mugging the security guard who catches him in the act. At times, we might find ourselves rooting for Bloom, who is surrounded by other amoral types and seems to have a simple but firm understanding of what he wants out of life, which is weirdly admirable. I was struck by the similarity, in some ways, with Richard III actually: how both Bloom and Gloucester start out as clear “bad guys” but whom you just still sort of like in a dark way. They both use clever language, they both put on a facade to mask their intent, they both use women for their own ends and own ends only, they both strike down their unsuspecting and naive rivals. But that all works only up to a point.
And when Nightcrawler reaches that point, things change. Then, hero and villain are conflated, and it becomes a story of wondering if Gyllenhaal’s “nightcrawler” will get his comeuppance like Richard did, or if he’ll find a way out. Bloom eventually becomes an abhorrent creature, manipulative, untrustworthy, dangerous, who does not even see the lines he crosses. But he is still seeking that American dream, that vision of hard work paying off. Matched with the sociopathic nature of Bloom, expertly portrayed on screen and in script, and you have a very dangerous concoction, a man who sees himself almost like a God, and who understands other people only insofar as what he can get out of them.
Brilliantly paced and startlingly vivid in the story it wants to tell, Nightcrawler gradually raises the stakes and ends on a great high of narrative. The ending might not satisfy everyone (see below) but I found it entertaining and imminently suitable for the tale that had just been told. The gradual escalation of things, Bloom’s nightcrawling, his relationships with the other characters, they all come to a brilliant and well thought out head, in a film that knows exactly what it is, what it wants to provide and the message it wants to the audience to take home when the credits roll, things that so many films, even good ones, fail to achieve.
Gyllenhaal is immense in this, easily my favourite performance of his. When he talks, he manages to make Bloom’s constant business management course speak sound weirdly endearing even as it also creepy. When he is silent, his facial expression abilities are some of the best I’ve seen this year, Ejiofor-esque. Sociopath’s are hard to do, but Gyllenhaal pulls it off, putting the right amount of subtle emotion into a character that could easily have wound up being a dull blank canvas of stone-facedness, and making the brief moments of explosive rage all the more shocking. Gyllenhall makes Bloom his own, a character the audience can easily both support and despise for a time, and he’s bound to get some award nominations as recognition.
The rest of the cast is in his shadow, but are still really good. Paxton’s gruff and belligerent rival provides a good obstacle for Bloom, Rene Russo’s news director offers a decent contrast with Bloom, both amoral characters who find themselves in a race to the bottom. And Riz Ahmed is enjoyable as Bloom’s put upon assistant, a desperate young man sucked into the vortex of moral decay with his “boss”.
Gilroy’s direction is top notch too. Nightcrawler isn’t a big budget affair, but the camerawork brings out the dichotomy of night time LA, the glamour of neon and street lights mixing with the grime of rundown neighbourhoods, the sophistication of affluent neighbourhoods mixing with blood spatters and police sirens. In a film about shooting film, Gilroy manages to make Bloom’s journey through increasingly fancy camerawork clear and accessible, in both the machines that he uses and the quality of the footage that it creates. And in personnel terms, he sticks with that up close look at his cast, giving them all of the chances that they need to emote and perform, especially Gyllenhaal.
The script is great too. Everyone has the right voice, and Bloom’s constant string of internet learned leadership and management buzzwords comes off as interesting and quirky when it could so easily have been annoying. But the right contrast is made too. Russo’s stern professionalism mixes dangerously with Bloom’s straightforward selfishness and greed, and Ahmed’s under-privileged intern easily speaks as one of the people whom Bloom is out to dominate and exploit. Aside from that, the film is full of great lines and memorable wordsmithing, not least when Bloom himself sums up the film and his character succinctly: “I’d like to think if you’re seeing me you’re having the worst day of your life.”
James Newton Howard’s score is a bit of a weird one actually, with some strange tones and motifs used in parts, something that has been noted elsewhere. I did not find it too bad really, with some of the more, shall I say, “heroic” themes surrounding Bloom’s activities working more as a sort of internal soundtrack in Bloom’s head, whose actions, in his eyes, are heroic, the encapsulation of what any warm-blooded American should be doing so they can get ahead in this world. But aside from that bit of musical characterisation, his score is low-key and forgettable, unimportant in the grander scheme of things.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-The way that Bloom’s God complex develops through the course of the film is wonderfully portrayed, as he moves from normal “nightcrawling” to manipulating minor crime scenes, to moving bodies, to finally orchestrating his own criminal stories, to the point of murder.
-A different film could have seemed overblown with a finale like the one presented in Nightcrawler, but it all just seems to fit, the way that Bloom orchestrates the police shootout and the subsequent developments. One of the films best scenes is probably Bloom easily lying to the police about his involvement, making himself one of the victims.
-The American dream mentions are apt. Bloom is all about that, about how hard work and commitment will eventually produce financial success. But his is a warped version, a take no prisoners approach more suited to the modern age. Nightcrawling provides Bloom a way to enact his internet learned management lessons, but with a twisted focus on all levels.
-It’s probably the moment that Bloom starts to sexual exploit the Nina character that Nightcrawler’s lead starts to become unreasonably reprehensible, and no longer somebody you can support as a protagonist. It’s probably important that we never see that exploitation directly, or else Nightcrawler would probably have a plot that had too much negativity weighing it down. Nina’s relationship with Bloom is a weird one alright, but Gilroy makes it work within the context the film provides.
-I’m struck by another comparison there, between Nightcrawler and The Wolf Of Wall Street, two films that had antagonists as the lead character. That can be a problem for the audience, who feel no sympathy for the central character and thus suffer from a lack of engagement in his activities, wanting only to see him get his comeuppance. I feel Nightcrawler did a better job of dealing with this problem, presenting Bloom as a warped version of the American everyman just trying to keep his head above water, and succeeding. The Wolf Of Wall Street dangled comeuppance in front of our eyes and the snatched it away, a botched redemption arc that matched the frequently underdeveloped characterisation of its main character. Nightcrawler does not have that problem. Yes, there is no comeuppance for Bloom, but that sort of fits.
Nightcrawler is one of the year’s great movies. Gyllenhaal’s performance is worth the price of admission alone, and he’s matched by the rest of the cast. But this really is the Lou Bloom show, a dark and intense look at the psychological profile of a sociopath, willing to do whatever it takes to become a success. The visuals are great, the script is strong and even the mostly forgettable music adds something important in sections. A vision of how the real America operates is presented here, where underhandedness and deceit are as important as working hard and being dedicated, in a story where the difference between good and bad is abandoned very early. Maybe Lou Bloom is a modern American hero, one taking advantage of how broken parts of our world are to turn himself into the kind of figure we might idolize, without knowing the real truth. Nightcrawler is his story, and it is one that is well told and comes fully recommended.
(All images are copyright of Open Road Films).