Nightcrawler (Review)

In his 2011 book ‘The Psychopath Test’, Jon Ronson made the assertion that the rate of psychopathy amongst CEOs was significantly higher than that of the general population. It’s hardly an astonishing concept: it’s easy to see how traits such as extreme selfishness, lack of empathy and an absence of remorse can be advantageous to someone attempting to climb the corporate ladder. If you are running your own business or are doing well for yourself in your respective career path then that probably means that you are definitely a psychopath – I mean, look at the eyes of Manchester United Executive Vice-Chairman Ed Woodward and tell me you couldn’t imagine him running naked through an apartment building wielding a chainsaw.

Writer/Director Dan Gilroy describes his protagonist Lou Bloom as an “Uber-Capitalist”. When we first meet Bloom, he is unemployed, lonely but ambitious, systematically stealing anything he can try to sell (scrap metal, bikes, himself as an intern) He speaks with the veracity of WikiPedia and the mawkishness of an inspirational post on Facebook. He says things like “Guestimate” and “In order to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket” – You get the feeling he is making quite an effort to represent himself to others as a ‘normal’ person and behind Jake Gyllenhaal’s shiny ping-pong balls for eyes that never blink, you wonder who the real Lou Bloom is, if there is anyone there at all.

When Bloom stops at a road accident one night, he notices Joe Loder, a veteran ‘Nightcrawler’ who chases ambulance and police sirens in order to capture graphic and violent incidents on camera to sell to the local news stations. When Bloom decides to undertake this career path himself, each step to progress works to gradually reveals his true, despicable nature. The more Bloom compromises his (or rather, our) morals, the more money he can command for his footage and the more successful he becomes.

Dan Gilroy, here on his directorial debut, said recently that: “corporations have brought us into a world where life is reduced to transactions – there’s no place for human spirit or respect”. He and producer Jake Gyllenhaal, who describes Lou Bloom as “a product of his generation” share this maverick vision for their satire – to them, Bloom represents today’s experience in the difficult post-recession job market for young adults – desperately aspirational, knowledge-hungry and deeply soaked in media-driven consumerism. Bloom’s world is a cutthroat one, deeply individualist and inevitably violent – A person can only really achieve success at the expense of someone else. Due to this delicate global karmic balance, every time you get a promotion at work you’re basically batting a cookie away from an orphan’s mouth.

Nicolas Winding Refn, when discussing his 2011 film Drive, made the claim that Los Angeles has never really left the 1980s. Gilroy and Gyllenhaal seem to share this notion, creating a brutal and merciless portrait of the city powered by personal corruption and greed. In Gilroy’s LA, voices ring out at gas stations telling you to join their rewards program and Bird’s Eye adverts chime from televisions offering a more stable and wholesome life with their products. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (who shot Paul Thomas Anderson’s heavyweight parable There Will Be Blood) offers breathers that contrast the kinetic, hyper-modern night city scenes in the form of spectacular twilight landscape shots, complimented by James Newton Howard’s intriguing score that hints at the desert rock and sleazy glam metal that haunts the city’s past.

Nightcrawler’s true satirical power lies in the fact that it doesn’t make the potential descent into outrageous, horrific farce – Bloom’s true horror stays at a frighteningly realistic level, reigned in and cautious. As a metaphor for capitalism, the film works incredibly well – we exploit one another every day, commodifying each other’s misery and desires, and filming someone as they lay dying in order to make money displays this exploitation in a horrifyingly stark form. The literal satire of the ratings-hungry news networks is something that was briefly covered in last year’s Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues which charted the supposed transition of TV news from responsible public service to audience-grabbing generator of sensationalism. Gilroy here adds the notion of an ideological narrative being constructed to suit our appatites: News director Nina (played with deep vulnerability by Rene Russo) isn’t interested in footage of drive-by shootings in deprived areas – she wants to see the white, upper-classes being attacked by the poor, deranged underclass; the impending threat of crime and “horror creeping into the suburbs”.

The film’s concision and one-way narrative indicates Bloom’s odd mindset, but this is also expressed stylistically by some chunky scenes of exhortative, long-winded dialogue – quite uncommon in today’s average mainstream screenplay, butchered by committee. In perhaps his best role since Donnie Darko, Jake Gyllenhaal provides not only precision in his manipulative movements and speech, but also subtle, quirky comic moments which make it easier for us to adhere to our anti-hero. Some of this black, awkward comedy is delivered in partnership with Britain’s very own Riz Ahmed who plays Bloom’s downbeat assistant with impressive nervous energy. Bill Paxton displays authentic swagger as the insecure veteran, but the film is Gyllenhaal’s all the way; His Lou Bloom is magnetic and it seems we can’t help being impressed by clever and ambitious individuals, no matter how detestable their actions are.

Comparisons will no doubt be made to American Psycho and perhaps more fittingly to The Wolf of Wall Street, with the film acting as a more serious and didactic companion to Scorsese’s gluttonous comic riot. Living up to it’s sinister title, Nightcrawler is an appropriate film to see this Halloween because it works to reveal the true horror in ourselves as individuals and as a society. The thrills in the car chases later in the film are compounded by the anxiety and hyperreality of the context, and here is probably where director Dan Gilroy’s greatest achievement lies.