The opening shot of Nightcrawler is of a blank Los Angeles billboard. It is the perfect metaphor for the message of the film, a vacuum existing just to sell to people. A gaudy, dominating monument to marketing.
This is the world of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Bloom wants success. Success as Western capitalism teaches it. He’s not interested in improving the world, family or helping people. He wants career goals and money. He is modern ambition incarnate. A void of humanity, brought up on inspirational messages and business acumen one-liners.
We first see Bloom as a petty thief, but when he witnesses a video cameraman (Bill Paxton) filming the aftermath of a car accident to sell the footage to local television news, he believes he has found his calling.
Another theft gets him enough cash to buy a camera and a police scanner and he is off and running. Part of an underground of cameraman hunting news stories in the dead of the Los Angeles night, flocking to crime scenes like vultures. Bloom quickly learns that his lack of caring for ethics, people or their feelings makes him ideally suited to the work…and so his meteoric rise begins.
Nightcrawler is the directorial debut for Dan Gilroy and it is a spectacular debut. Gilroy’s previous screenwriting credits are underwhelming (the likes of Freejack, Real Steel and The Fall hardly boasted top tier scripts), but this is a superb piece of work.
The satire as vicious and the whole is reminiscent of Martin Scorcese. The dark streets, the vitriol directed at American capitalism of Wolf of Wall Street, the Taxi Driver-esque anti-hero in Lou Bloom.
But the true cunning of Nightcrawler is how it makes you root for Bloom. Part of this is down to the script, part down to the tense filming and part down to the clever score by James Newton Howard that provides revelatory, heroic tones even when Bloom is carrying out the most deplorable acts.
Gilroy pulls few punches with his attacks. Bloom spouts cheerful platitudes like, “a friend is a gift you give yourself” in between quoting self-improvement lines. Local TV news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) tramples over broadcasting standards in the rush for ratings, explaining to Bloom that what really sells is minorities committing crimes against whites in affluent neighbourhoods. There is no interest, she explains, in the poor preying on the poor.
All of this social commentary would be wasted if the film failed to engage – but boy, does it. Bloom’s escalations from indiscretions (moving a corpse at an accident into better light) through to orchestrating violence for his camera are riveting. All are shot beautifully and edited superbly, culminating in a high-speed car chase the equal of any action film.
Towering over it all is Gyllenhaal. As Bloom, he never convinces as an actual human being, but that is not his goal. His performance is hugely charismatic, his Bloom reptilian and ever-grinning with a smile that never touches his eyes. Gyllenhaal lost 28 pounds for the role and the result is a gaunt, skull-like figure that bristles with energy and barely-contained menace.
A terrific film that delivers on all fronts, Nightcrawler is a modern urban masterpiece. Unmissable.
The extras include some interviews with Gilroy, Gyllenhaal and Russo, plus a fluff featurette mixing those interviews with footage from the film. A second featurette is a little more candid, but also quite superficial and brief.
The main addition on board is a commentary track. This is a breezy and highly-informative track featuring writer/director Dan Gilroy, his brother Tony (producer) and his other brother John (editor). As brothers, they are at ease throughout and discuss a wide-range of topics from the shooting style to the casting of Gyllenhaal through to their use of technical advisors for both the late-night camera operators (known as “Nightcrawlers” or, more common, “Stringers”) and the police in order to lend as much authenticity to the film as possible.