Mark Reviews Movies

Nightcrawler

NIGHTCRAWLER

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Dan Gilroy

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Michael Hyatt

MPAA Rating: R (for violence including graphic images, and for language)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 10/31/14


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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 30, 2014

It would be comforting to be able to see Nightcrawler as satire—to be able to think that the film is simply an exaggerated view of the world of the news media as seen through a warped lens. That would be very comforting, indeed.

The question is not if this is where the news media is heading. The question is: Is this where the news media is?

We have examples of live police pursuits that become on-air suicides. We have cameras covering every possible angle of an armed standoff, appearing to hope that they're close enough and have the right view if/when something violent occurs. Online outlets publish graphic photos and even videos of beheadings by terrorists (giving those terrorists what they want, which is an entirely different discussion).

It has become absurd, too. We see two reporters from the same network standing in the same parking lot—mere yards from each other—talking about things that may or may not happen or have happened. A major cable network spends weeks on a missing airplane, even though there is barely enough information to warrant a single segment.

It's the tabloidization of the news, and we're fine with it. If we weren't, the media wouldn't be doing it, right? It's a two-way street. We watch and keep watching, and they see the ratings and keep doing what gets the numbers.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy's film is localized and specific, and through that specificity, it addresses the broader issues. Namely, that idea of tabloid sensationalism becoming the norm. It does so by looking at a niche industry: freelance "journalists" who arrive at the scene of a crime or an accident and record footage of the aftermath. Sometimes the footage includes interviews with witnesses or those involved, but what the local news outfits want are the shots of devastation.

Footage of a flaming car-wreck will sell for a few hundred dollars. Film a bloody body after a crime has been committed in a nice neighborhood, though, and the starting price is in the thousands. If it's sweeps week, double it.

They're the paparazzi of crime scenes. With crime rates going down, they're providing the footage that not only creates a story but also provides the news department with visceral evidence of a narrative they want to push to keep people watching.

What's fascinating here is that Gilroy seems to have worked out his main character in reverse. In other words, it feels as if he began with where the character ends up: as one of those "journalists" who profit off the misery and death of others. From there, he seems to be asking, "What kind of person would seek this kind of work?" That's where Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, in a daring, go-for-broke performance, which hits one note that gets progressively louder) begins: a sociopathic petty criminal with dreams of making money in the quickest way possible.

That makes the film much more than just an indictment of questionable journalistic practices. It makes the film a searing psychological study of the personalities that apply those practices. Given his criminal behavior before and after he takes to this career, Bloom might come across as an extreme of that personality but never so much that we're questioning his rise in this industry. In fact, we start to believe that only someone as extreme as Bloom could really thrive in this field, and that is the most frightening commentary on this industry in a film full of discomforting ones.

Make no mistake: Bloom is sociopath. The film opens with him stealing chain-link fence from a train yard in Los Angeles. A security guard confronts him, and during the course of the questioning, Bloom notices a nice watch on the guard's wrist. Gilroy cuts away just after Bloom lunges at the guard.

We never learn what happens after the initial attack, but we see that watch on Bloom's wrist throughout the film. He doesn't try to sell it like he does the other things he steals. He holds on to it like a trophy.

Bloom is looking for work, and Gilroy follows his perspective as he eyes things he wants, like a luxury car. Bloom happens across an accident on the highway, stops, and watches as Joe (Bill Paxton), a veteran freelance crime reporter, captures the flaming wreck with his camera. Gilroy's camera lingers on Bloom's eyes—always wide, always observing, always unnerving—as he takes in the scene. Later, he steals a bike, sells it at a pawnshop, and buys his own camera.

The key relationships here are Bloom's with Nina (Rene Russo), the producer of a local morning news broadcast, and Rick (Riz Ahmed), who takes a job as a low-paid intern in Bloom's business. Nina is the tough-as-nails, bottom-line-driven stereotype who mocks the network's attorney when she asks if a debate about whether or not the news can broadcast the gruesome footage of a murder scene is a moral issue.

She is Bloom's enabler, insisting that he provide her with footage of a certain type of story ("urban" crime infiltrating the suburbs, with well-to-do, white victims and poor, "minority" perpetrators), and partner (There's a chilling scene that puts the two in an intimate, almost romantic frame with the still image of a dying man's final moments between them). In one lengthy scene that shows the extent of Bloom's lack of understanding of human interaction, she's also his victim.

Rick is increasingly the film's sole voice of morality and common decency as Bloom's business succeeds and his boss' competitive nature directly and indirectly starts a body count. Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit (who captures L.A. in threatening, imposing shadows) have this ingenious way of making Bloom's filming of crime scene simultaneously objective—in how the camera hangs back behind its protagonist—and subjective—in how we only see the aftereffects of crime through the viewfinder of Bloom's camera or on a monitor.

That distancing effect disappears in the third act, which follows Bloom manipulating a murder investigation to achieve his own ends. It's an extended sequence that includes a shootout and a car chase (The dynamics of the latter, which features the police chasing a suspect and Bloom chasing both, are inventive), but we're watching it without the accustomed comfort of Bloom's detachment. There are bigger consequences that Nightcrawler wants us to consider, even as the mentality of the film's protagonist ignores them.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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