Nightcrawler is a dark thriller set in the neon-lit, hazy nocturnal underbelly of contemporary Los Angeles. Amidst its strip mall parking lots, night fast food joints, and unpleasant inhabitants, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a quietly unhinged scavenger at the edge of the cityscape. When the film opens, we get a glimpse into Lou’s existence as he’s cutting through wire fencing he intends to sell as scrap further down the road. We see him pleading with the proprietor of the scrap yard for employment, who bellows ‘why would I hire a thief’ at his gaunt face. On the highway home, amidst the tangle of flesh and metal of a car wreck, he discovers a slimy Bill Paxton wielding a camera and floodlight. Lou, bug-eyed (Gyllenhaal prepared for the role by starving himself of both sleep and food) asks what’s going on, finds out that local news channels are willing to pay for bloody footage of human suffering, and he begins his descent into the unscrupulous world of L.A. crime journalism.
With a camera pawned for a stolen bicycle in a sun-drenched Venice Beach that somehow still feels dark and nocturnal, Lou muscles into the cut-throat, dangerous realm of nightcrawling. Sitting by his radio frequency scanner, he starts learning police code, translating 10-33s and 187s into possible jobs. Aided by Rene Russo as Nina, a veteran of the blood-sport that is local TV news, Lou thrives. And from that point on, for rest of the film, everyone’s eyes are gleaming, whether they are staring into a wall full of TV screens in a news station editing room or not.
Russo proudly confirms that if Lou needs inspiration for the kind of footage he should bring her he should just think of the newscast she produces as “A screaming woman, running down the street, with her throat cut.” And throughout the film, the newscasters deliver Lou’s most disgusting footage with the vapid 21st century disclaimer that viewer discretion is advised. Whether this is a warning or an invitation to come closer is never clear in the film, nor is it clear in the 24-hour news cycles we’re all subjected to everyday. Eventually, Lou’s boundless and unfettered ambition leads him to manipulate reality, initially moving a body at the site of a car crash, to better frame it with light and tragic context, eventually graduating to a far more sinister engineering events during a home invasion in an affluent white neighbourhood.
Throughout, Lou uses the buzzwords and lingo of the all-American entrepreneur. Not the bespoke-suited Gordon Gecko of the 1980s, but the equally terrifying privacy trampling faux-casual cut-throat capitalist of the Zuckerberg era. He utters the kind of business-speak platitudes that get set in pretty typefaces against against evocative imagery and shared huge, friendly corporations on their social media channels. Lou is president and CEO of a company of one, he believes his own motivational bullshit. And that is what makes him a terrifying sociopath. Eventually he takes on a hire, Riz Ahmed playing Rick, the terrified stray taken under Lou’s wing. He starts as an intern and graduates to Vice President as Lou asks him to go deeper into the darkness with him. A meaningless title, delivered with a flow of corporate doublespeak worthy of the best HR departments.
The clinical delivery of the entrepreneurial spirit leads to another theme that few have reviews of the film have highlighted: it is a story about loneliness. Or rather, of aloneness. In the neo-noir LA reflecting off the red paint job of Lou’s freshly leased muscle car, no one seems to live with anyone. And the few who do end up dead. The only other living organism Lou seems to nurture is a plant he waters delicately out of a drinking glass from his kitchen. He lets it sip the way you let a dying relative sip.
Above all, it is a film about commodification. Richard Corliss, writing in Time, says that “Lou is a spiritual descendant of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver”. That may be true, but he is his descendant in the terrifying world of post-Tinder sex, of post-Buzzfeed journalism, of constant attention-seeking but dwindling attention spans. Everything is commodified in Lou’s world. Every crash, every police call code is translated into a cash sum. During a terrifying exchange with Russo, where the extent of his sociopathy is crystalline, sex is another form of payment. We never actually see anything carnal, because it is so contrived and transactional that it’s not really the point.
This is a slick film, and it’s hard to believe thatDan Gilroy is a first-time director, but that’s not why you should watch it. You should watch it because, like a rubbernecker driving past a car crash, you won’t be able to look away. And as a society, it’s about time we stopped looking away from what we’re becoming.