Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a gaunt LA resident that stalks late night streets in a search for loot and easy pickings. He is smart, savvy, and above all solipsistic. He’s in it for himself and he’ll do whatever it takes to better his life – even at the expense of others.
People are inherently strange. There’s no blueprint to follow, there’s no standard, and we all just live our lives and view reality from subjective perspectives. Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is no exception, in fact he’s sociopathic, atomised from society, and his postmodern late night sleepless existence is both alienating and alluring.
You see Lou knows what he wants and he seizes whatever opportunities come his way. The opening scene reveals Lou doing just that. A security guard stops him to question what he’s up to and Lou immediately launches himself at the guard and viciously attacks him. For the rest of the film Lou is seen wearing that guard’s watch.
Nightcrawler is a film full of disillusionment, unfairness, and insomniacs. The late night LA world is not somewhere that most people would want to spend their time but for Lou it seems to be the setting that makes him feel the most alive. There’s a distinctive tone to this film, a throwback to Paul Schrader perhaps, and in Gyllenhaal’s performance there’s a definite De Niro edge.
Lou Bloom is a parasite
Lou Bloom is a parasite and that’s the inherent premise of the film as a whole. The story follows Bloom as he moves from small time thief to news cameraman. His transition isn’t seamless and there are many casualties (notably morality) as Lou stalks LA looking for news stories. He has to drive around the city fast, he uses a police radio, and he competes with other ‘freelance’ news teams.
He learns early on that he needs to get to the story before everyone else and he understands quickly the nature of journalism. Lou needs to be the one with the scoop and he needs to have the best shot of whatever accident or crime has occurred. Similar to the hero in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), Bloom is a very modern protagonist. He uses his camera like a gun and he’ll stop at nothing to get the best story even if that means ‘adapting’ the crime scene to frame his shot better.
High stakes in Nightcrawler
Director Dan Gilroy keeps the camera work close and the tension high. There is an underlying satirical edge to the film as a whole and it’s reminiscent of the more overt Lumet movie Network (1976). However it’s in the performances that Nightcrawler comes into its own. Gyllenhaal gives one of his better performances and he drives the movie forwards. His skinny frame and gaunt appearance gift the film virility, immediacy, and he imbues the narrative with a sense of charisma.
However twisted and unpleasant Lou Bloom can be he still manages to convince others to follow his lead. He’s a dangerous kind of loner, one that can infect others with his nihilism and cruelty. He knows how to push people’s buttons and he does so with great effect.
Charismatic, nihilistic, sociopathic
He pushes his assistant (Riz Ahmed) and forces him to become ever more embroiled in the grey half-light that Lou himself exists within. For Lou it’s all about profit and this removes him from the events that he’s seeing. He sells his morally bankrupt footage to an aging and tired newscaster (Rene Russo) who also jumps at the chance of career progression.
It’s a cruel story and there is no quest for good. Instead it pushes us further and further down Bloom’s rabbit hole and eventually it becomes difficult to determine if what he’s doing is that wrong, or at least that different to the narrative that the news gives us every day. We are in an age where everything is documented, captured, and privacy is an increasingly archaic notion. We can debate all we want about it but while we do people like Lou Bloom are out there filming us in our worst possible moments.
That’s the strength of Nightcrawler. It’s a comment on our times with a distinctly retro tint. It could be argued that this nostalgia inducing palate is simply a reflection of our need to put filters on the photo’s that we take, that really our desire for aesthetics, for the perfect shot is not too dissimilar to Bloom’s.
But Bloom is different. He is a man apart, distanced, and thankfully so. Nightcrawler is a disturbing movie but it’s also a thrill ride, an exciting narrative that builds and builds to a crescendo. It tears down LA streets, it’s late night vision of the city is similar to Michael Mann’s in Collateral (2004), but Nightcrawler is its own beast. Gyllenhaal finds his footing and injects Bloom with forward momentum, a twisted sense of morality, and like Gosling before him turns what would have been just anther B movie into something special.