One gets the sense that in “Nightcrawler” long-time screenwriter Dan Gilroy, helming one of his scripts for the first time, had in mind a “Network”-type satire of local TV news, and his picture does have some of the verbal snap and over-the-top speechifying of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 classic. Its targets, however, are nowadays so mundane, and its treatment of them so shallow, that despite a weirdly compelling performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, the movie comes across as less revelatory than it clearly strives to be.
Gyllenhaal, looking emaciated with his sunken cheeks and big, saucer-like eyes, plays Louis Bloom, a modern-day creature of the night in contemporary L.A. When he’s first seen, it’s as a thief who steals metal from construction sites and city property, which he sells to shady contractors; he’s even willing to attack a security guard to gain access to the stuff. But during one nocturnal excursion he comes upon a car accident, and sees a free-lance shutterbug (Bill Paxton) taping the gory scene for sale to local TV stations, which vie over such sensationalist material for their news shows. That gives him the idea to follow in the guy’s footsteps.
A self-described autodidact who prides himself on thinking everything through, Bloom acquires a police scanner and videocamera in trade for a stolen bike at a pawnshop, and begins chasing down car crashes and violent crime scenes to film. His initial ineptitude costs him some shots, but he’s a fast learner, willing to do things that others in his line of work won’t—like effectively slipping past police tape to get exclusive footage, even if it stretches the bounds of good taste as well as legality. That tactic gets him past the door of a low-rated station whose news director, an aging beauty named Nina (Rene Russo) whose job depends on the upcoming ratings week, comes to depend on his exclusives. Bloom keeps pushing the envelope, and expands his oddball little empire by hiring an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), a hapless homeless man who can help him get to blood-soaked locales ASAP. Eventually he’s killing the competition—literally—and speeding around in a spiffy new car while forcing Nina to meet his more personal needs by threatening to take his business elsewhere. In the end he truly goes overboard, manipulating crime scenes to arrange a more artistic shot and eventually photographing the victims of a bloody triple murder before the cops arrive and then using secret footage of the perpetrators to track them down and then arrange, against poor Rick’s objections, a shoot-out with police that will make his reputation as a budding businessman.
It’s appropriate that “Nightcrawler” is being released at Halloween, because Bloom is a sort of vampire who feeds on human blood metaphorically rather than literally. Certainly Gyllenhaal plays him like one—Louis has a sallow complexion and seems never to need sleep, whose every gesture seems artificial and calculated and whose steely-eyed intensity is matched by a strange precision of language that makes him seem almost robotic. It’s a flamboyant performance that in a way is one-note, but the note is so oddly discomforting that it comes off fascinating rather than tedious. Nobody else in the cast is allowed to overshadow him, Paxton oddly bland; but Russo brings a tone of over-the-hill resignation to her portrait of a woman forced to abandon every shred of old principles in an attempt to survive a brutal business, while Ahmed has some fun with his role as the nervous sidekick who makes a serious mistake by challenging his boss.
Gyllenhaal is undoubtedly fun to watch, and the movie is visually quite striking, with cinematography by Robert Elswit that gives the L.A. locations a woozily neon-like ambience that fits the material. The images are also nicely complemented by James Newton Howard’s score, whose insistent rhythms enhance their hallucinatory quality.
But in the end “Nightcrawler” seems more than a little trashy and meretricious, especially in a last act in which Bloom obsessively rides a wave of carnage to fame and fortune, oblivious to the danger it poses to others and willing to do anything to anyone to keep his plans on track. The wild overstatement is, of course, part and parcel of the satiric mode—after all, Major Kong’s riding an atomic bomb to his—and humanity’s—doom is hardly the stuff of subtlety. But in Kubrick’s film the stakes were higher, and the level of sharpness and artistry far greater. Gilroy, by contrast, has chosen to deal with a subject that feels rather musty; the tendency of so-called journalism to focus on gore and shock value to attract viewers seems pretty old-hat, and the supposed quandary between ethics and ratings in TV news is territory that has been plowed before, sometimes with greater impact and insight. Simply put, this is a movie that wants to be cutting-edge, but in the end its creative blade proves rather dull.
Still, it’s hard to take your eyes off Gyllenhaal.