THE American dream does not sleep, nor does it have a moral code.
Lurking in the sinister shadows of a Los Angeles night is Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), an opportunist on the hunt for success – at any cost.
One evening, a bloody accident at the side of the road introduces Louis to the world of freelance crime journalism. This profession involves filming the immediate aftermath of the night’s most compelling – and bloody – incidents, ready to be sold and aired on the next morning’s news.
It is a world director Dan Gilroy paints in particularly murky and morbid fashion. One that manipulates crime, markets blood and stokes fear – all for profit.
As told to Louis: ‘If it bleeds it leads.’ It is part of a mentality which means entertainment and ratings take priority over both factual accuracy and credibility. (We only have to glance at the pantomime that surrounded the 2016 US Presidential Election – exploiting fears and manipulating truths – to understand this approach.)
The moral ambivalence of his job does not discourage Louis. Instead it lights a fierce determinism which pushes him to darker and riskier deeds.
There is certainly a hint of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman in Louis – from his medium length, slicked back hair to an unnervingly mechanical approach towards life. There is also a pent up aggression which threatens to boil to the surface at any moment.
Louis also talks in rehearsed formalities. As though he is regurgitating a copy of Business Management for Dummies. Unsurprisingly, he later admits to being self-taught on the Internet, another probe from Gilroy at the ever-dehumanising direction of our culture.
Gyllenhaal brilliantly embodies this driven, on-edge and creepy character. His physique appears slim and slumped, a far cry from his muscular look in Southpaw a year later.
But the real window into Louis’ character lies in his face, which Gilroy’s camera takes every opportunity to lock in on. His expressions often teeter captivatingly between a boyish excitement and Bateman-like psychopathy.
It all comes through in the size of his grin and the intensity or softness of his eyes.
Louis is not the only disturbing creature in Nightcrawler. Nina (Rene Russo) runs the morning show that Louis sells his footage to. She too will sacrifice morals if it means job security and a larger pay-cheque.
Frank (Kevin Rahm), the network’s voice of reason, is one of few within the film to oppose this outlook.
Likewise, Louis’ likeable assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed) – who brings the film’s biggest laughs – often voices his shock and disapproval at his boss’s actions.
In one chilling scene, Louis and Rick show up to film the horrific aftermath of a crash involving a familiar face. While Rick is struggling to come to terms with the situation, Louis leers over the victim like a gaunt-faced, camera-wielding grim reaper.
A comparison which Louis later reinforces by saying: ‘I like to say, if you see me you are having the worst day of your life.’
Of course, the gloomy setting of the film reflects Louis’ cold outlook. Los Angeles, recently seen energised by the vibrant colours of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, is instead engulfed in darkness.
Bright murals make way for dull street and car lights. Bold primary colours are non-existent. Rather, we see the film’s characters lit up by the ominous glow of police and ambulance beacons.
Tellingly, Nightcrawler opens with a shot of an empty advertising hoarding on a desert road at night. The American Dream in the dark.
This image marries the opportunism of American life, reaching back to the frontier days, with a disquieting menace. The type of menace which saw frontiersmen brutally wipe out and displace the natives in the name of commerce, destiny and – as they saw it – progress.
Louis has similar instincts.
Yet, as the sounds of James Newton Howard’s drifting and uplifting electric guitar suggests, Louis’ story can be viewed as an inspirational one.
At a time when millennials are criticised for having a passive, lazy and expectant approach to life, Louis demonstrates a willingness to craft his own destiny. Even if it comes at the expense of others.
He is an entrepreneur. A survivalist. A winner.
Keep in mind the role and impact (or lack of) of the police and Frank in this film when you reflect on this.
Whatever way you read it, Nightcrawler is a fascinating watch with a mesmerising performance from Gyllenhaal.
A brilliant film of our time. Gloomy, yes. But pertinent. A must see.
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Nightcrawler – 4/5
Dire & Scre: Dan Gilroy
Music: James Newton Howard
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo, Kevin Rahm
DOP: Robert Elswit