Ghoulishly pallid, his dark, ringed eyes sunk deep into his skeletal face, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief and low life criminal, protected by the cover of darkness and the unseen horrors of the night. He’s also in search of a job…any job. And the job he stumbles into, one that he feels an immediate affinity with, is filming the carnage of late night accidents. The more gruesome the scene, the more at home Lou feels. This is the world of the nightcrawler: where groups of persons (they call themselves journalists) trawl through the darkness, following the leads of police and ambulance distress calls, to scenes of murder and mayhem.
They are the support system to a news industry and an audience eager for ‘real life’ violence. As nightcrawler, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) says, “If it bleeds it leads”. Lou quickly establishes a symbiotic relationship with an equally pallid creature of the night, Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news editor of a struggling news channel in dire need of a ratings boost. Lou’s grisly videos and his amoral violation of any vestige of decency and privacy are just what it takes to boost the morning news viewership.
Lou and Nina form an unlikely partnership, each one needing the other. It is a partnership that evolves beyond mere business into a powerplay in which whatever little dignity she may have had is shredded as her lust for ratings and a steady job forces her to yield to his lust for her.
Just another one of those things hidden by the night, the dark place where the light of morality never shines. These nightcrawlers are more than ‘ambulance chasers’, they’re all those zombies ‘out there’ without a shred of ethics or morality to guide them.
They are, the movie suggests, the heart of business.
For Lou is the living marketing cliché. He’s a self taught man with a mission – to create a business empire. His – at times very funny – conversations with his abused side-kick, Rick (Englishman Riz Ahmed from “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”), who Lou promotes from “assistant” to “executive vice president”, are peppered with the language of the business-place: he speaks of career goals, strategic initiatives, business objectives, share of market etc.
Initially this seems the sad and pathetic conversation of a loser. But as the movie progresses and as Lou’s fortunes and professional skills rise, writer and director Dan Gillroy (he also wrote “The Bourne Legacy”) makes it clear that really, Lou – this ghoul, this amoral succubus on the living – is actually the face of business. Like any businessman, Lou is earnest, committed and with a ready smile. Underneath the sunshine of that smile though, lies the night: sinister, ruthless, mercenary and without any shred of a moral conscience. All the good character ingredients for a successful businessman
This is Gilroy’s first movie. His directing is crisp, efficient and densely atmospheric. It’s as though he’s combined Clint Eastwood’s efficiency with the moodiness of a Michael Mann or young Scorsese. The result is a movie whose tension never lags; as a viewer, you’re both disgusted and, like his imaginary TV new audience, enthralled. With a reasonable take of about $20M since it opened in October, I suspect we’ll be hearing much more from him.
Gyllenhaal is outstanding as usual, and is one of the names tipped for an Oscar. He lost 30lbs for the part and has turned himself from a cute guy into a corpse with greasy lank hair that he bundles on top of his head, like some sort of warrior heading out for battle. His faux smiles and soft-spoken demeanor that mask a seething, angry bully, are pitch perfect. But the outstanding role of the movie is that of Rene Russo’s Nina. The ever-glamorous Rene here looks bloated, aged and drained of light. She balances the cock-sure strut of the powerful executive with a private sense of fear and dread. She has to demean herself to Jake as much as, we imagine, she’s had to demean herself in the past to others in power.
Nothing to worry over. It’s just business.
There is however one key reservation that hangs over “Nightcrawler”. I wonder at the sincerity of the movie-making. I wonder whether the movie’s cynicism about the world of business is nothing more than a pose, a cynical stance to stand out in the clutter of Oscar-time movie titles lighting up the Hollywood night.