There’s definitely something off about Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the bottom-feeding crime reporter whose grisly nocturnal activities propel writer-director Dan Gilroy’s sensational new thriller Nightcrawler, a venomous media satire sharp enough to draw blood.
Lou has what Shakespeare called “a lean and hungry look,” a description that, when applied to Lou, has less to do with the character’s gaunt, borderline ghoulish appearance than the ravenous, all-consuming scope of his ambition to become the alpha scavenger in the amoral annals of Los Angeles’s local television news scene.
It’s difficult to pin down what exactly makes Lou so far removed from the rest of humanity. Maybe it’s the way his cold, sunken eyes glimmer with such rapacious inquisitiveness. Maybe it’s his tight-lipped smile, so strained and artificial, parting only to spout off reams of learned-by-rote huckster aphorisms, managerial doublespeak and carefully worded threats. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that he makes his living by exploiting his subjects on what’s already the worst day of their lives — and that’s assuming they’re still alive. One can almost envision the lettering on the character’s favorite coffee mug: “You don’t have to be a sociopath to do this job, but it helps!”
When we first meet Lou, he’s an unemployed but intensely driven loner with ill-defined dreams of one day ascending the corporate ladder. One night, on the way home from selling copper wire and stolen manhole covers for rent money, the troubled young man stumbles upon a fiery car wreck on the freeway. There he meets the gruff, abrasive Joe (Bill Paxton), a freelance videographer, or “nightcrawler,” who sells graphic accident and crime scene footage to local news stations for a pretty penny. Lou, intrigued by Joe’s invocation of the old newsroom adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” and untouched by even the faintest prickling of moral accountability, immediately buys a cheap camcorder, scores a police scanner and dives headlong into what he views as a promising new career.
Sure enough, it turns out Lou has a terrific eye for capturing carnage, and before long he becomes the go-to nightcrawler for a ratings-starved news station and its ruthless producer Nina (Rene Russo), who tells the fledgling videographer to think of the ideal news story as “a screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut.”
As the plot thickens, it becomes obvious that Nina will run just about anything Lou brings her, no matter how violent or depraved, and their already unusual business arrangement takes on a far more sinister (not to mention kinky) bent as Sweeps Week draws closer and closer. Lou, realizing he’s become an invaluable asset to the station, starts living increasingly high on the hog: demanding better pay, swapping out his rusty hatchback sedan for a souped-up Dodge Challenger and hiring a jittery, Sancho Panza-esque assistant (Riz Ahmed from the morbidly brilliant suicide bomber comedy Four Lions) to help him run down his stories.
The revelation that the news — specifically local newscasts — has devolved into a voyeuristic, ratings-fueled bloodsport populated by well-coifed predators isn’t exactly a late-breaking development — films such as Network, Broadcast News and To Die For have hammered home that point before — but the idea has never been explored with this much visual vitality and skewering wit.
After taking Lou under her wing, Nina tells him to focus on documenting crimes against the wealthy by inner-city minorities, using the fear of urban encroachment to drive a spike in viewership among suburban households. Later, when Lou misses out on a big story and attempts to substitute coverage of a lesser crime in a less moneyed neighborhood, the battle-hardened Nina reminds her eager protégé that in the nightly hunt for relevance and exclusivity, the end justifies the extreme: “I want something people can’t turn away from.”
The film’s cast is uniformly excellent. Gyllenhaal, who previously demonstrated his chops for playing unstable eccentrics as the eponymous protagonist in Donnie Darko and a damaged-goods detective in last year’s Prisoners, turns in his finest performance to date as a man unbound by the laws of common decency.
Russo, a tough and gorgeous presence who’s been sadly absent from the screen for the past nine years aside from her blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances in the Thor movies, tears into the role of Nina with the relish of a gifted performer starved for worthy material. Gilroy is her real-life husband, so it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the part was written with her in mind. Regardless, she absolutely nails Nina’s hard-bitten cynicism while simultaneously projecting the faded, wistful glamour of a talented journalist who still pines for her time in front of the camera. Paxton, meanwhile, makes the most of his brief screentime as Joe, a loathsome, profane slob who gluts himself on human misery.
The real star of Nightcrawler, however, is Los Angeles itself. This will go down in history as one of the quintessential L.A. movies, fit to stand with the likes of Double Indemnity, Chinatown, Collateral and Drive. As seen through the roving, hypnotic eye of There Will Be Blood director of photography Robert Elswit, the City of Angels transforms into a neon-soaked empire of deferred dreams and self-delusion. Gilroy, a veteran screenwriter making his directorial debut, chose to shoot the film on-location under cover of darkness, and this blending of familiar locations with the ephemera of night cuts to the very heart of what makes Los Angeles the strange and wondrous place it is: the kind of beautiful you never turn your back on. After all, it’s difficult to think of another city that could produce a creature as perversely fascinating as Lou Bloom.