America is the land of opportunity, the place where the go-getters of society rise to the top through hard work and dedication. No matter how prophetic you find that preceding statement, director/writer Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler spends its run time trying to convince you that this worldview is for the delusional. Through the eyes of Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a preening self-promoter trying his hand at exploitative TV news (car crashes, murders, and such), we get a dark and twisted character study about a social recluse who never quite fit in with everyone else. This is Gyllenhaal’s one-man show of insanity, which makes for messages about sensationalism in the news and the acidic nature of those crazy motivational seminars that Jordan Belfort runs, to be inhibited in service of a story that never reaches its full potential.
Lou Bloom, a gaunt looking man who is one analogy away from being Gary Busey, decides to pick up a camera and try his hand at news reporting after being revitalized by witnessing a terrible accident that was being taped by other news teams. Blurring the line between observer and participant in the terrible acts that he is filming, Lou turns to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the producer of the lowest rated news station in LA, to buy his work. Lou falls down a rabbit hole of depravity, as the things he films get more and more unethical. Naturally, Nina needs those viewers and Lou’s work gets them.
Character studies about immorality are a genre in itself nowadays. Perfected once by Martin Scorsese with The King of Comedy, Nightcrawler tries to achieve almost the same outcome as the former. Gilroy’s narrative about a man making his way through life in the weirdest way possible produces a handful of laughs. You know, the kind that make you question if you should be laughing or not. Gritty realism is only shown in spats, almost making the viewer think that the film has more to say than what is said in Gyllenhaal’s psychotically deranged monologues. Alas though, Nightcrawler trades in what could have been a large-scale criticism on society in for a more calculated rendition about the deranged doing increasingly demented things for vices like greed and lust.
Alright, time to stop throwing shade on something that is actually quite thrilling and hilarious through and through. Gyllenhaal, who is arguably one of the greatest actors of this generation, absolutely owns this role that rivals classic characters like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Tyler Durden in Fight Club. The camera stops on Gyllenhaal’s Lou for extended moments through the film, giving us straightforward views that the character holds to be true. Of course, they come of hilariously delusional and disturbing. Lou’s exchanges with Nina come off so eerily uncomfortable that everything around you will start to squirm. I guess that’s the point of the whole film though, to put something so understandable like the American dream up on display but lace it with things that will have you feeling constricted by your own skin.
To round out the supporting cast, Rene Russo (Outbreak), Bill Paxton (Aliens), and Riz Ahmed (Centurion) all turn out decent performances. Russo as the network producer that will do anything for ratings is frightening, especially since we have never seen the actress play someone so blunt and morally despicable. Paxton is a pleasure, per usual, as a rival cameraman that stands as an obstacle to Lou’s success. Ahmed is the most befuddling of the three, playing the assistant to Lou’s video production venture. We get another side of achieving the American dream in his character; Ahmed’s Rick being the kind of person abused by his employer but takes the verbal brutality because he needs the money. In multiple scenes, we see Rick step up for what he sees as right but it gets muddled under the character’s lack of enunciation in every sentence he utters. This being a minor shortcoming, it’s close but not totally forgivable in the grand scheme of things.
The best thing that Nightcrawler does is spinning a tale about a man who thinks he’s the smartest every room he occupies, and most people believe him. The biggest con Lou pulls off is making people believe that what he says is the gospel that needs to be shouted to everyone slacking off in the country. In reality though, this sad caricature of a man represents the worst that American society has to offer. You know, the type of people that go to an expensive business seminar and claim to know everything after getting their completion certificate. In one sequence during Nightcrawler, Lou forgets about a technical folly in the newsroom he occupies, that he cannot talk to a reporter in another location just by yelling at a monitor. This is arguably the best scene in the whole film. A lot subtler compared to the rest of the film, this scene reminds the viewer that no matter how smart Lou acts, he still is as daft as the next guy.
Dan Gilroy, the writer behind The Bourne Legacy, pulls double duty as the writer and director of Nightcrawler. It’s hard to pin point anything unique about Gilroy’s fledgling directing style. The visuals never called out to me as being something that bolsters the material. The film never really tries to depict LA as the devouring animal that it is. As a first feature though, this is solid material to build from. I give credit to Gilroy for trying to represent a multi-barbed satire accompanied by a thriller. It’s just disappointing that the best things about Nightcrawler struggle to outweigh the weakest.