A self-taught sociopath becomes an upwardly mobile monster in Dan Gilroy’s gripping character study.
Nightcrawler follows the career trajectory of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a thief turned freelance cameraman (or ‘stringer’) who sells increasingly gory crime footage to a network news station for exorbitant paycheques. The structure is more like an earnest success story than a psychological thriller, and the darkest hazards of ambition are probed with ambivalence. This is no cautionary tale, just the story of a misfit who’s finally found something he’s good at and the system that enables him.
The familiar rules of the satirically evil newsroom are established early on: white victims (preferably middle and upper-class) trump all when it comes to ratings, the more violent their deaths the better. “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut,” explains Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director of a struggling station approaching the end of her contract. The angle may feel tired at times, but Nightcrawler isn’t claiming to unmask the hypocrisy of ‘news as entertainment’ the way Network did almost 40 years ago. Instead, the industry functions to exemplify the risks of a free market in a world where people are worth more dead than alive.
The desperation induced by a contemporary American job market fuels Lou’s cutthroat ethos. An early scene sees him grovelling for an unpaid internship at a construction yard where he sells stolen copper wire and manhole covers. He gleans no social responsibility from his struggle, later hiring and abusing an intern of his own. The homeless and vulnerable Rick (Riz Ahmed) is paid 30 dollars per night to risk his life and routinely violate his moral code. Nina—an aging former anchor with dwindling job prospects—also falls victim to coercion when Lou uses her expiring contract in an act of vile sexual blackmail. In a less cynical film the three might form a united front against adversity. Lou opts for the cannibalistic alternative.
The amorality of his universe is underscored by the detached atmosphere of the film itself. Scenes are bookended by shots of sinister cityscapes and derelict nooks of Los Angeles. Cinematographer Robert Elswit has captured a city as indifferent about its lawlessness as Lou. At one point, Lou maneuverers a dying victim for ideal composition and lighting as James Newton Howard’s contrastingly hopeful score plays. It’s one of many disorienting cues that spur us to conflate inhumanity with resourcefulness.
Lou is a character study of a business-minded Travis Bickle. But while Taxi Driver exposed a world that creates monsters, Nightcrawler lifts the rock on one that rewards them. With no skills or formal education to fall back on, Lou capitalises on his sociopathy. He robotically recites motivational catchphrases from online business courses and uses economic models to inform his entire worldview. There is no distinction between negotiation and intimidation when it comes to supplying demand for his footage.
It’s a deviation from the standard rags to riches narrative in its absence of leisure. Lou doesn’t fall victim to any middleclass temptations. Much screen time is dedicated to remuneration but almost none to spending. His capital, we intuit, is spent mostly on upgrading professional equipment. What seems to drive Lou is a singular desperation to forge an identity through compulsive overachieving.
The most unsettling aspect of Nightcrawler is how satisfying it is to watch Lou work. As with many effective thrillers bloodshed is sporadic, heightening the eventual excitement. Several of the most graphic scenes are shown through a viewfinder or monitor rather than full-frame, turning viewers into crime scene rubberneckers straining to catch a glimpse. It’s an urge that validates Lou’s business model.
An unsolicited alignment occurs between Lou and his audience, manipulating them into complicity. It’s universally exhilarating to watch a victim of circumstance emerge triumphant, and in the absence of a human adversary the prospect of failure becomes a villain. We root for the antihero in this American Dream turned nightmare.