The age-old (and perennially criticized) maxim of local TV news, “If it bleeds, it leads,” finds a fresh facilitator in Lou Bloom, the creepy-eyed, fast-talking protagonist played by an emaciated-looking Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler.” Seeking work on the streets of Los Angeles, Lou is drawn to the eponymous profession, a colloquialism used to describe independent contractors who sell their crime-scene videos to newscasts. Capturing both accidents and foul play in gritty detail, often stepping past police lines to score especially gruesome shots of dying individuals, Lou displays a sociopathic lack of empathy in his new line of work that many critics have aptly compared to that of “Taxi Driver”’s Travis Bickle. This makes him the perfect point-man for the sensationalist local producer Nina Romina (a sultry Rene Russo), who will air just about anything—the bloodier and more horrific, the better—to attract shocked eyeballs.
“Nightcrawler” wages two main critiques, each of which boast highlights and select drawbacks. The first is, quite apparently, an excoriation of the American broadcast media, particularly at the local level. While this critique generally lacks originality—how often does one hear the old line that the local news never actually reports real, substantive stories?—this does not diminish its sustained relevance. As a frequent viewer of LA news and one-time USC broadcast journalism student, I can vouch that a late sequence in which Romina devotes an entire newscast to Lou’s footage taken inside a home where a triple-homicide occurred, capturing all the bloody details before police arrived on-scene, feels true to the spirit of local TV in this city. Desire for valuable information about municipal events and politics is better satiated online than by tuning into the many broadcasts dominated by car chases, sports, and isolated crimes. Especially after the recent release of Nick Broomfield’s documentary “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” which chronicles the Los Angeles media’s complete ignorance of a serial killer who wrought havoc on South Los Angeles over a period of twenty-two years, Romina’s directive to Lou to only capture those grisly crimes in the nicer, whiter parts of town also carries an eerie resonance.
The film additionally functions as a critique of dog-eat-dog capitalism, as Lou must take extreme measures—from violating every traffic law in the DMV handbook to provoking major crimes himself—in order to get ahead of his fellow nightcrawlers, the most successful of whom is played by a delightfully smarmy Bill Paxton. Like his critique of local news, writer/director Dan Gilroy’s condemnation of neoliberalism is quite on-the-nose—a scene in which Lou rattles off for Romina the essentials of entrepreneurship, which he memorized with the help of the Internet, becomes almost too heavy-handed to bear—but it is fleshed out enough that it ultimately works. While perhaps overly leftist for my tastes, “Nightcrawler” nonetheless explores an important fundamental question: Has competition corrupted certain valued institutions—the news, in this case—in socially damaging ways? Given how much of “Nightcrawler” rings true to life—even the most exaggerated bits of Lou’s footage—it would be hard to argue not.
For as ideologically inclined as “Nightcrawler” is, however, much of its power rests in the savagely captivating sociopathy of Gyllenhaal’s lead performance. In fact, the aforementioned Travis Bickle comparison is not only appropriate in terms the two characters’ seemingly similar mental illnesses—granted, Bloom is more manic than Bickle—but also in terms of acting caliber. Rivaling De Niro’s landmark turn, this is by far the best work of Gyllenhaal’s career, as the actor comes off as sick beyond recognition. He is particularly unnerving in the selectively implemented close-ups—expertly lensed, as always, by the veteran cinematographer Robert Elswit—which come across like nightmarish 21st century renderings of the French Impressionist concept of photogénie. There is a visceral quality to Gyllenhaal’s presence that transcends the surface content of the movie; we feel something deeply disturbing when he is on the screen, so compelled by this unnerving sensation that we cannot look away. It is perhaps the same sensation that drives us to keep watching the most problematic of local newscasts; luckily, Gilroy and Gyllenhaal channel the impulse to more productive ends.