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The early buzz for Universal's Nightcrawler led me to expect something frightening, with Jake Gyllenhaal's character too horrible to contemplate. Don't worry, it isn't that gross -- but it generates plenty of nervous tension. I'm happy to report that Dan Gilroy's exciting, superior thriller is also loaded with insights about the slime that is our good old American local news media. The use of the phrase "If it bleeds, it leads" initially raises fears that Gilroy's approach will be 30 years out of date. Nope, Nightcrawler is a reasoned study of today's rogue video news stringers, night owls that haunt police scanners and race to crime and emergency scenes to get hot images of fires, car wrecks, injured people, etc.. Paparazzi are the bottom feeders of the flashy celebrity press; these free-range ghouls chase down bad-news action in search of eye-catching flashes of wreckage and misery, and maybe a mangled victim or two. 1
I finished watching this disc just as our local KTLA news came on at 10:PM, and the broadcast could have been a direct continuation of Gilroy's movie. And not only because the film's "KWLA" appears to be located on Sunset right where KTLA has been for many years. I habitually jump to the news at night just in case something important is happening. No, what comes up are of course the same crime and misery stories. They only turn my head when they're close to home. For 40 years I've heard the same or similar words at least twice a week: "This kind of thing never happens here", or, "I didn't expect this in my nice neighborhood." Nightcrawler captures perfectly this modern reality-show attitude to what used to be TV journalism -- and then says a few more things about making a living in the 21st century.
Petty thief Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives by his wits, seeking a vocation where his talent for lying, stealing and sneaking about in the dark can find expression. He becomes a stringer selling news video to a local TV station. When program director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) buys his footage, Louis is able to hire an assistant "intern" in the homeless Rick (Riz Ahmed). Louis soon obtains a professional camera and a flashy muscle car. He stays on top of his game by jamming his camera into emergency situations where it isn't wanted, feeding like a parasite on the suffering of the injured and wounded. He interferes with people trying to phone 911 and even moves an accident victim to obtain a better picture. Things become more serious when Louis takes underhanded steps to sabotage his competition (Bill Paxton). He then goes all the way. Coming upon a crime scene way before the authorities arrive, he shoots exclusive video of a still-living victim and nails down the identity of the violent criminals. But Louis withholds what he knows from the cops... because he has bigger plans.
In 1951 writer-director Billy Wilder took a commercial stumble with his Ace in the Hole, a caustic story about a newspaperman's manipulation of a tragedy to serve his personal career needs. The movie was roundly rejected as impossible, ridiculous and a cynical lie, when everything in it was both possible and probable. In today's corrupt media climate we accept the existence of Louis Blooms without question. Of course there are people doing what he's doing. With people seemingly gaming the system all the way to the top, many 'big scoop' stories we see are now suspect in one way or another. 2
Taking Nightcrawler at face value, there's not much exaggeration going on. Louis Bloom's actions are cold-bloodedly amoral, as befits someone reared by the Internet, the essential isolation of which encourages one to not concern themselves with the problems of other people. Louis is fast, accurate and undeterred by all the things that inhibit you and me from committing immoral acts. "Life Will Find A Way" translates to, "I do what's necessary to succeed and I make no apologies." Louis begins by playing innocent and asking pros for help. As soon as he sees how the game is played, he's impervious to offers of simple employment. From then on everybody else in his business is either an enemy, or somebody he must find a way to control. Otherwise, somebody else will control him.
As directed by Dan Gilroy, the show has an excellent feeling for the L.A. streets. We see a lot of Sunset and Ventura Boulevards, and a crucial car chase goes down on Laurel Canyon Blvd. in the Valley. Louis and his partner Rick hang around the generally upscale neighborhoods of the Hollywood Hills, to get what the TV news people want: poor people being victimized or injured isn't news, but crime and havoc to wealthy people is. Nina knows full well that her broadcast markets fear -- the news is just a reality show telling us to be afraid, lock the doors and watch TV to see what else we need to hide from.
In real life, this fear is a crock. Most of the street and place names in the film are very close to where I live --- I'm fifteen blocks from Western and Third, which the selective news reportage wrongly implies is a frequent killing zone. I'm not afraid to drive these streets at night; I've been doing it for decades. Crimes happen, it's true, but the news doesn't show the peace and quiet that prevails almost all the time. Louis and Rick are able to zap across town in just a few minutes flat, which isn't hard to do at 1am, if you're willing to break the speed limits as he does. With the police coverage as thin as it is in this town, it is altogether possible for Louis to get to a crime scene ten minutes before the cops.
What's exaggerated in Nightcrawler? They keep cutting to images of Louis' jazzy red Challenger SRT8 392, parked overnight curbside in less-than secure neighborhoods. It would be stolen, there's no getting around that. I mean, the first reason Louis needs to hire Rick is to have somebody to watch the car while he films. Second, trying to beat the authorities to crime scenes is interference, and so is getting in the way of traffic accident rescues. It's 'discouraged' behavior, if only a misdemeanor offense. Do pro nightcrawlers set aside legal fees to keep that problem at bay, or do they have special arrangements with the cops? Maybe they use muscle to keep wannabes like Louis from horning in. Next, I hope that the cops aren't so stupid as to accept Louis's obviously edited video footage at face value. Murders are involved. They'd demand the original uncut camera recordings, and they'd impound his equipment to make sure they got it. Finally, there are enough traffic cameras at intersections in this town to prove that Louis's story about being followed by bad guys is untrue, should someone want to nail him on a MAJOR felony.
None of those objections do harm to Nightcrawler's credibility, especially if we think about the LAPD's record for brilliant crime busting. What's dangerously exciting is Louis Bloom's lack of basic human morality, a social disease that now seems to be the norm for everything from single entrepreneurship to the largest corporation. Survival means bending rules to get an advantage: eliminate diversions and go straight for the profit. Actively neutralize competition. Louis is a world-champion rule bender. I suppose a cynic would say it was always so, while most people would consider Louis a radical exception to the norm. We only see flashes of the police and emergency medical responders, people that still (we hope) subscribe to the idea that working for the public good is in itself an honorable goal.
Whenever people photograph real life for profit, morality issues comes into play. For Louis, plying his trade is incompatible with notions of Privacy or Common Decency. I've never heard a consensus about the issues underlying the old "Red Asphalt" films, and they were shot with the cooperation of law enforcement. I love the way some of the jaded Angelenos at Nightcrawler's crime scenes tell Louis to go shove his intrusive questions. Not a people person, he's soon finessing his prime aptitude for hit & run, get-the-gore raids. Louis Bloom stalks about like one of Charlie Manson's creepy-crawlies, sneaking where he doesn't belong and rearranging evidence to enhance his videos. He becomes something of a Video Ghoul, describing to Nina his desire to get better compositions, to better 'draw the eye to the subject matter'. He clearly learned that art-speak on the Internet, the same way he learns everything.
Meanwhile, Nightcrawler is hitting us with an entire second level of interest as arresting as its surface thrills. Louis Bloom at first seems too articulate to be a dropout with so little formal education ... except that that's a good description for many successful entrepreneurs, a select group that tend to be self-starting loners that trust nobody and look out only for themselves. Louis could be Louis B. Mayer... another ambitious man who began in the junk business.
Louis' hiring process shows us the traps waiting for non-professional labor in the brave new working world. Louis is all business. He doesn't really converse with people, he negotiates with them. Everything about hiring Rick is based on forcing compliance, not cooperation. Louis uses the jargon of corporate Human Resources zombies, restating the marvelous opportunity to be had in a new business venture that is generously allowing Rick to participate. Just like a big company, Louis pretends that his concern is personal, even when he keeps Rick in the dark and cheats a him with one-sided 'agreements'. Being a good employee, 'going the distance' for the job, is an abject surrender. Anything else is mutiny. When Rick finally digs in his heels Louis immediately threatens violence. Try to use the employer's leveraging methods for your own ends, and the response will be ruthless.
Louis's behavior seems psychopathic only because he carries business logic a bit further than most operators dare. His dealings with Nina Romina turn dark almost immediately. She gives him a break and rewards him, but Louis recognizes no bond of trust. He sees that Nina is ageing out of her job, and that her promises of a long-term employment relationship mean little. He rejects her friendship and instead uses cold logic to compel her to give him what he wants: business contacts, credit for his company name, and finally, a sex relationship. It's pretty scary seeing Romina cave in to Louis's demands. But she can't ignore him - job security is an illusion, and she can't afford to have him as an enemy. 3
This attack on capitalist entrepreneurship is what makes Nightcrawler stand out among today's so-called neo-noirs. Louis Bloom is a slimy exemplar of the self-made man who finds his opportunities and acts on them. Bloom has some talent but really excels at tenacity and persistence -- and focuses on nothing beyond his immediate goals. The level of social criticism here equals that of old-time noir malcontents Joseph Losey and Cy Endfield.
The surface thrills of Nightcrawler are more than strong enough on their own. Jake Gyllenhaal surely conceived of Louis Bloom as a graveyard Ghoul, a video body snatcher. Skulk around railroad lots stealing scrap metal long enough, and the fear goes away; he's a gangster artist. Gyllenhaal lost weight for the role, and in many shots his eyes seem to bug out of his skull. Louis is a vampire, a predator after his next meal, and his appearance is appropriately feral. He gets the job done and gets his money. Nothing else exists.
Twenty years after Get Shorty, Rene Russo again plays a smart insider struggling to stay employed. Her contribution anchors the movie in reality. The proof of Nightcrawler's thesis can be found on the nightly news of any metropolitan station, the kind driven to out-do the competition with the sexiest weather girl. Nina Romina knows what keeps people watching, as she prompts her newsreaders to harp on the fear angle, to restate the horror and menace. "What you are about to see may be disturbing."
Riz Ahmed's Rick is very well judged. Inexperienced and slow on the uptake, he's nevertheless no dummy and knows when to rebel. Like anybody else who wants not to live in a car, Rick is willing to countenance a lot of things at work that he knows are wrong... few of us can claim complete innocence on that score. But being at heart a good and trusting soul, Rick foolishly thinks that a decent working relationship is possible. Louis openly admits that he has no use for people, and is only too willing to throw Rick under the bus to keep his company alive.
Director Gilroy gives us the feel of riding along on night streets, not knowing what we'll come upon next. The film is cinematic cousins with Alex Cox's Repo Man, except it's not a satire. Maybe that's why today's audiences find Nightcrawler so disturbing. We prefer movies that pander to their political-social presumptions. If something contrary is proposed, it often takes the distanced stance of a comedy, a satire. That way, any disturbing vibes can be ignored. Gilroy's film isn't going to do anything about the local news ghouls, but it might make a few working stiffs more aware of the pernicious way employers control them. Beyond the suspense and the excitement, that's reason enough to heartily approve of this movie.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment's Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD of Nightcrawler is the expected polished, flawless widescreen encoding of this nicely filmed feature. It has a great shot-on-film look; negative emulsions are now so sensitive that rich night-for-night scenes are possible where we can see everything, and even have a decent depth of field.
The Blu-ray audio comes in DTS 5.1 and simple stereo. English, French and Spanish subs are on both the DVD and the Blu. A commentary gives writer-director Gilroy plus his producer and editor (both also Gilroys) an opportunity to expound at length on the genesis of the film. An HD featurette offers some interesting statements from the director and star Gyllenhaal. Two 'video news stringers' appear on camera to vouch for the reality of what occurs in the film. It's a smart featurette from Trailer Park -- it's not overloaded with film clips.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. An important precedent for Nightcrawler is definitely Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, in which Robert Forster's stringer news cameraman is shown plying his trade back in 1968 Chicago. Just as in this movie, he and his sound man come across a traffic accident with injuries before the ambulances have arrived. They get their news shot and then move on without seeing to the condition of the victims. Later on, some characters debate the big 'Atomic turtle' controversy from Mondo Cane.... which was once a key talking point in discussions of journalistic ethics. Nightcrawler's Louis Bloom wouldn't waste a second of time worrying about such things... he's a born torturer of innocent turtles.
2. I just read that this year's Super Bowl was the most-viewed TV event in history. Using the yardstick of 'who benefits', it's an easy step for conspiracy-minded individuals to wonder if last week's 'deflated-football' controversy wasn't concocted to break at an optimum moment, so as to intensify interest in the big game. Just ask, 'who benefits?'
I could conceive of an opportunistic Nightcrawler sequel in which our daring hero continues pulling even more outrageous scams to obtain sensational news footage. It would be silly, as the honest Detective Frontieri (Michael Hyatt) has Bloom's number now. With dead cops involved, I should think that Louis really needs to watch his back now. In reality, once the Blooms of the world reach a certain level of liquid security, they level off and ixnay the riskier extra-legal activities. In the next step, they polish their civic images by contributing to charities ... with the money they're not paying their employees. I'd say it will soon be time for Louis to think about becoming a content producer, where his people skills and mindset can really pay off.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.