Nightcrawler is a slow burn thriller that gets the entirety of its suspense out of the electric sociopathy of its lead role. We first meet Louis Bloom stealing metal to sell for scrap. He’s desperate for employment, but possesses an eerie confidence, having pumped his head full of free online business courses, DIY sloganeering, self-help mumbo jumbo, and faux-MBA jargon. A chance encounter with a news crew starts the wheels in his head spinning. Soon, he’s roaming the Los Angeles night, police scanner running and camcorder at the ready, charging hard towards the first rung in the news business: collecting footage of accidents and violent crime for sale to the highest bidder. Because it’s clear that he’ll do anything to get ahead, and views people only as tools to either take advantage of or cast aside, this bottom-feeding can’t be good news for the rest of us. He’s a danger.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Bloom in an intense, unforgiving performance that takes everything appealing and earnest (sometimes overly so) about his screen persona and turns it rotten. His driven, desperate mania is scary. This man is capable of the same Gyllenhaal ingratiating puppy dog eyes and easy grin, but they are made creepy by his intensity of focus and the vacant space where his ethics and empathy should be. With an arresting, unblinking calm, he walks through the picture with big bug eyes, a gaunt wiry frame, and stringy hair pulled back. He’s part Gordon Gekko, part Travis Bickle, greedy with delusions of grandeur. We don’t know what he’s capable of. He’s awkward, and that’s darkly funny, until it’s clear he could very well hurt someone.
It starts with sneaking past police tape into a home, the better to film the bullet holes in the fridge, right between the family photos he slides around to get a better shot. At a later scene, having arrived before the police, he drags a dead body into a smashed car’s headlights to get a better angle. He’s not a murderer, but that’s the only thing separating him from the serial killing cameraman of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. He grins as he films the bloody messes he scavenges the scanner for, sees the violence of man only as a way to make a buck. Luckily for him, the culture is ready to abet his efforts. He meets a night shift news editor for the lowest rated local news station in the area. They just might be able to help each other.
She (Rene Russo, as a shark we’re never sure whether to fear or pity, maybe both) is desperate to increase station ratings, but not so interested in hiring a new freelance film crew, until he brings her gory footage of a mugging victim bleeding out on a gurney. “Call us first,” she tells him, asking specifically for footage of rich white people wronged by people of color. (It’s what really gets the audience scared, and ready to tune in to hear more.) That’s all the encouragement he needs. He hires an assistant, a poor street kid (Riz Ahmed) who takes $30 a night under the table, to help navigate and identify crimes in progress. Together they roar down dark streets, swerving down highways and residential areas alike, chasing the sound of sirens and the distant sight of flashing lights. Their goal is to get as close as possible, as early as possible. Bloom wants better footage than his competitor (Bill Paxton). Ideally, he’ll get there before the cops to ensure that perfect, untouched, lurid Red Asphalt-style fearmongering for the morning news.
Screenwriter Dan Gilroy, who co-wrote Tarsem’s The Fall as well as such gleaming, polished Hollywood product as Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy, here makes his directorial debut. He has written and directed a spare, unsettling character study that bristles with the uncomfortable danger of madness that can sit within the hearts of desperate men, especially those warped by the American dream into monsters of capitalism, who hear “pursuit of happiness” and think “pursuit of profit,” then add “at any cost necessary.” It’s a picture of symbiotic, parasitic dynamics, a business that relies on relaying human misery that makes more money the bloodier and more frightening the footage. It’s the right place for this sociopath to make a mark. Gyllenhaal commits to the ugly irredeemable monster and Gilroy builds a world for him to stalk.
Gilroy has cinematographer Robert Elswit shoot L.A. from unflattering angles, finding strip malls, barren expressways, and rundown parking lots to stage their crime scenes. In between we pass streetlights, stoplights, headlights, briefly providing light to the dark. It’s an unsparingly nocturnal movie, the nighttime shot in the same digital haze Michael Mann’s been working with for a decade, detailed blackness and glow. Daytime is bright, filmic textures, a different world entirely. Bloom doesn’t fit there. He’s a creature of the night. Violence is framed through Bloom’s camera, keeping it largely just off screen, mediated by screens within screens. It emphasizes the disconnectedness this character feels, and emphasizes the eerie, disturbing dispassion. We’re pulled so swiftly into an uneasy worldview that as we’re inexorably moved deeper, tumbling down the slippery slope towards exploitation and obstruction of justice, it feels only natural. And that’s what makes the suspense so effective. How far will he go? How far will we let him?