Everything’s up for negotiation in Nightcrawler, and there’s no one better at it than Louis Bloom. Gangly, shallow-eyed, and sporting hair two inches too long to warrant slicking back, Lou has the look of an IT worker, but the aspirations of a Fortune 500 CEO. He’s an ambitious detritivore that scurries through the cracks of L.A., collecting anything of value that’s not nailed down. Whether it’s chain-link fences, bikes, or a manhole cover, he’ll broker a sale with larger creatures of the night like he’s trading stocks instead of scrap metal. Lou’s the roach that always gets away before you’ve got a shoe in hand – he’s creepy, but you’ve got to admire the work ethic.
There’s also plenty to admire about Nightcrawler itself, a nervy little ride from writer and first-time director Dan Gilroy. It’s a particularly timely release, and not just for how it explores civilian relations to news media in an era where anyone with a camera phone is a reporter. Sandwiched for release between the Halloween haunts of October and seasonal Oscar-bait, Nightcrawler isn’t angling to catch a big audience, or big prizes. It’s the kind of mid-tier adult entertainment that you don’t see a lot of this time of year, or this century.
If Lou ever sleeps, we don’t see it. He’s a nighthawk with cycles of activity that keep him inside during the daytime, and out scrounging in the moonlight. Like most pests, Lou (played with an intensity measured to the milligram by Jake Gyllenhaal) lives in the dark, but can’t resist the glow and buzz of artificial objects. In his rinky-dink apartment, only the flat-screen TV and laptop look like they weren’t salvaged from a dumpster. Drawn to the flames of a highway car crash, Lou discovers the unseen and lucrative business of freelance news coverage: if you’ve got the footage, a ratings-hungry network will pay you for the rights to air it. The moment Lou first steps foot into a broadcast station, the heavenly glow of cathode rays convert a man into a journalist.
Nightcrawler is a classic rags-to-riches story updated for a nostalgic 21st century: the ethics and aesthetic are pure ‘80s, but what’s being sold is all digital. Combining Patrick Bateman’s misanthropy with Jordan Belfort’s ability to spin B.S. into gold, Lou blooms quickly in a market where content is king. Reigning over the competitive and burgeoning world of guerrilla news coverage is an old-hand played by Bill Paxton, who has the equipment and experience to be first on the scene, and first to the newsroom with whatever horror show L.A. is putting on that evening. The business is a dog-eat-dog scramble for raw footage, but it’s not long before Lou’s unflappable determination changes the rules.
Gilroy has no trouble getting you to root for a twerp like Lou, even if his saucer plate eyes and saurian angularity inspire goosebumps. He’s the American ideal of a small businessman, a guy who starts with nothing, finds a hole in the market, and fills it. “News is a screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut,” local station director Nina (Rene Russo) tells Lou, and the more affluent and whiter that woman, the better. Crime rates are going down, but audience interest in extreme content has only increased with every age-gated LiveLeak video the Internet has come to offer. To carve out his slice of the pie, Lou crosses lines other freelancers keep a safe distance from. At first, this means moving photos on a fridge so that the camera can capture the smiling faces and bullet holes of a home shooting all at once. Eventually, it means moving bodies.
Like his ‘80s forbearers, Lou’s a deal closer, not an artist. His job is to get the money shot, but it’s Nina and the studio that spin and sizzle a random car-jacking into the start of a crime-wave. Nightcrawler would make for a more damning indictment of alarmist media coverage if it wasn’t already goosing reality at times, but that’s part of the fun. The chase for whatever fresh meat the city’s just chewed up is slick and exhilarating when you’re riding shotgun in a Challenger SRT, but Lou’s career ascent and moral decay follow a familiar trajectory.
If anything, Gilroy’s own tendencies as writer and, particularly, director needed to pursue the sicklier impulses of Nightcrawler’s main character. As a story, it’s not quite unpredictable or strange enough to haunt you the way the film’s first hour always threatens to. And like Lou, Gilroy is efficient to a fault behind the camera. He’s created a colourful world in this dark corner of California, but the full vibrancy of the city never quite registers the way it has in after-hours thrillers like Collateral and Heat (a Michael Mann connection is engendered immediately, thanks to Lou borrowing James Caan’s leather jacket from Thief).
But to focus too much on the risks Nightcrawler doesn’t take is a little ungrateful, considering what a thrill it is to have an adult-targeted crime story that’s not pulling a geezer out of retirement to be an action hero, or adapting a comic book. With a mesmerizing performance from Gyllenhaal and Gilroy’s solid handling of the material, Nightcrawler makes for a deviously enjoyable middle-ground between arthouse and schlockhouse. If you want more like it, then, to paraphrase Lou, you have to buy the ticket.