Every so often, a film comes along that truly captures the pulse and zeitgeist of its time and mood. The first film from writer/director Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler is such a film. While a Hollywood screenwriter for some years, nothing previously in his career hinted at this exceptional blow torch of a film that takes aim at news media and the moral implications therein.
This is angry, uncompromising cinema, surprising in both its dark humour and incredible ability to disturb and make viewers truly question the processes involved in the attention grabbing, sensationalist news coverage presented to them in this twenty-four seven world, where the next big story is only a heartbeat away.
Story-wise, it takes an unflinching look at modern media and, in particular, cameramen who specialise in filming human existence at its worst, whether it be car crashes, murder or behaviour at its most toxic or negative.
Lou Bloom (a masterful Jake Gyllenhaal, losing thirty kilos to play the role) is such a man, nicknamed a ‘nightcrawler’ due to the fact that they work in that physical and moral grey zone between dusk and dawn, where the world in general is asleep and unaware of this netherworld existing.
Nightcrawler is a welcome addition to films that, over the past sixty years, have taken a critical look at news media and the ends and means to which it achieves its goals. Some of these include the 1951 Billy Wilder film Ace In The Hole which, over sixty years since it was made, still packs an almighty punch. Other films include the 1987 James L. Brooks film Broadcast News and one of the most unforgettable, Oliver Stone’s lacerating cinematic sledgehammer from 1994, Natural Born Killers. Like many of the big themes and concepts of our modern world, journalism and news media has always held a certain fascination for film makers. If done right, they have provided compelling cinema over the decaddes.
It is interesting to note the advent of reality television over the past fifteen years and its effect of the presentation of news, whether it be in written form or televisual. There seems to be a disturbing trend where misinformation and outright lies are now acceptable, never mind the actual ‘truth’. There used to be an expression that said ‘the camera never lies’. Nightcrawler, and the way it shows Bloom editing what he films to suit his own ends and means, somewhat casts a negative light on what was once a truism. Also, news has become somewhat trivial in its content, highlighting famous and wannabe famous people and their exploits. It is instances of what passes for ‘news’ in our modern day and age that makes the themes and issues of Nightcrawler more cutting and pertinent than ever.
As a side note, the head of News Ltd, Rupert Murdoch, has come under fire recently for a Tweet he posted congratulating his people for getting the story first, without a whiff of compassion, empathy or apology to the families of the innocent victims who lost their lives in the siege. This highlights all the more the cut throat ‘every man for himself’ attitude that Lou possesses in the film.
It is fascinating how, in the film, there are never any easy or pat explanations for Lou’s motivation as a character. While an absolute sociopath with possibly psychotic tendencies, was he born that way or is he a product of the modern work day and age? America and, by extension the world, is experiencing something of a recession at the moment.
Work places are tightening their belts left and right. In a way, Lou represents those that have lost jobs through no fault of their own and seek work outside the traditional system, or are fed up with supposed ‘conflict resolution’ in the work place consisting of sentences like “Shut the fuck up and deal with it” or “If you don’t like it, quit” as explanation of less than positive treatment by employers of their workers.
We also live in a day and age of warfare across the globe. Is Lou a veteran who has seen too much, whether it be as a soldier or a citizen, and has somewhat disconnected from the world as a result. One of the most admiral strengths of this film is the way it refuses to offer any pat or easy explanations.
In a way, Nightcrawler shares a lot of ground with the classic 1976 Sidney Lumet film Network. While ostensibly satire, it downplays the exaggeration that this style of writing and art is known for. One does wonder watching both films where that line between truth and fiction lies. It also addresses one of the key concepts of media and how it has somewhat become malleable over time: morality.
The pursuit for ratings and viewers becomes the be all and end all for both Lou and his boss (Rene Russo), who alarmingly becomes converted to Lou’s way of thinking after he identifies the fact that she has never lasted more than two years an any position she’s held as a news producer. The question of ‘what is right’ or ‘what is pushing things too far’ in regards to what is shown on television becomes somewhat redundant over time.
Also, it is interesting to look at what has motivated Lou to the point that we see him in the film. Sunken eyed and constantly looking like he hasn’t slept much, he mentions that he has been inspired by the words of motivational speakers online. It highlights a distortion and misfiring in his character the way that he has taken this ‘nonsense speak’ as gospel and a way to conduct himself. Outwardly polite, there is an absolute heart of darkness within this man, determined to succeed at all costs, no matter what damage, physically or mentally, he causes along the way.
In that respect, Nightcrawler is powerfully reminiscent of the work that writer Paul Schrader did with director Martin Scorsese in the Seventies and Eighties. Films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and, especially, the 1983 film The King Of Comedy make for fascinating comparisons. Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, learns what he knows about sex from watching pornos when not working as a taxi driver.
Boxer Jake La Motta, in Raging Bull, sees violence as the only way of dealing with life, in and out of the ring. In his own work, Schrader has very much addressed the plight of the lone American male and the alienation and loneliness they experience, something of a spiritual and physical separation from their fellow being. Some of the films that Schrader has written and directed, such as 1980’s American Gigolo and 1992’s Light Sleeper, are compelling examples.
As part of his job, Lou takes on an offsider, Rick. This is a particularly interesting character in a number of respects. He serves as a moral compass through the film, horrified by some of the things that his boss asks him to do. Also, the question of money is a big one. Rick is told that he is working as an ‘intern’, business speak for working but not getting paid for it. This provides a running theme throughout the work, and serves as a comment of business practice in the modern day and age.
As the story progresses, Lou becomes more emotionally cold and aggressive in his own pursuits. This includes ingratiating himself with the higher ups at the news station. While a fascinating character, this is one with frozen vodka in his veins and a little black marble stone where the heart should be. There is a particularly shattering and violent climax in Nightcrawler that Lou pretty much orchestrates himself to get what could be described as the perfect ‘money shot’ with what he presents to the station.
In the chaos and violence that follows, his partner Rick is shot and dies as a result. The blank look on Lou’s face, as he films his dying partner, says a million words. He all but shrugs his shoulders, considering this human life little more than collateral damage in his attempt to claim his piece of the world, like Schrader’s ‘American loners’ before him.
Even when questioned by the police, he is smooth as silk, ultra polite and gives nothing away. This is a character so far gone that he has become a law unto himself, bolstered by his growing stature at the station, underlined beautifully in the final scene where he has assembled his own team of ‘nightcrawlers’ and his sending them on their way into the night.
Make no mistake, Nightcrawler is very much a film of the here and now. However, the themes and concepts it addresses, without pulling any of its punches, will last eternal. Interesting to note is the way that, in the upcoming Oscars, it only has one nomination, Best Original Screenplay. Occasionally, awards ceremonies move in mysterious ways.
The other side of that coin are the great artists of our time, such as Stanley Kubrick and Sergio Leone, who never won Oscars in their lifetime. This is unfortunate in the case of Nightcrawler. In a cinematic world full of sequels and superhero movies, here is an astounding work with something to say and the intelligence and guts to say it.
Author Bio: Neil is a journalist, labourer, forklift and truck driver. In a previous life, he was a projectionist for ten years. He is a lifelong student of cinema.