Nightcrawler is a wickedly brilliant thriller, a social satire and an eerie look into the mind of a sociopath who can manipulate with the power of cold-blooded reason. That sounds like a tall order, but this is a deceptively simple plot made functional by a well-mounted script and a near-perfect performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.
Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a man who seems to be as bland as the white shirt on his back. He’s a drool, square fellow who talks with the confident detachment of a marketing video and dresses as if he’s stealing from Good Will. Outwardly, he’s painfully unremarkable, the kind of guy that you pass every day without notice, just another face in the tapestry of your busy day.
He lives on the fringes of Los Angeles. When we first meet him he’s collecting scrap metal to make a few bucks. On the way home he passes a car on fire, and pulls over. What interests him is not the firemen rescuing the driver, but the presence of a man with a video camera (Bill Paxton) who is filming the action. Louis asks the man which news channel he works for, but the man tells him that he’s freelance – he finds accidents and crime scenes, shows up, films footage and then sells it to the local news stations. Louis has a burst of inspiration and, before you know it, he’s bought himself a police scanner and a cheap video camera and is scouting police activity.
What is unsettling about Louis is how good he is at this new venture, and how willing he is to break every moral code in order to get paid. Before long he’s crossing the police tape and snooping around the bodies with his camera to get the best and bloodiest images. His talent captures the eye of an attractive news producer named Nina (Rene Russo) who likes this guy’s moxie. He does more work for the station, and demands higher pay. Before long, he asks Nina to dinner. What develops is not a romance, but an odd business arrangement built on curiosity and blackmail. At dinner he reveals himself to be a schemer, a deceiver, a liar and a manipulator with all the moral dignity of a bus station toilet. No one wants anything to do with Louis and yet he has such a bizarre method of concrete reason that you’re surprised that the person in his cross-hairs doesn’t fill the pauses with “Go on.” They are fascinated and so are we.
Like Hannibal Lector or Travis Bickle or Gordon Gecco, we are fascinated by the charming monstrosity of this Louis Bloom. He’s a man with the brain of a sociopath, a scummy little creature with the heart of a rat, and yet you can’t take your eyes off of him. He has a way of motor-mouthing his way into whatever he wants. Watch carefully the way he turns the casual small talk of the dinner with Nina into a whirlwind of blackmail built on bold assumption. It’s a brilliant piece of writing and acting.
Nightcrawler was directed by Dan Gilroy who wrote the screenplay for The Bourne Legacy. Here, in his directorial debut, he has constructed a hard-bitten satire, a look at 21st century TV news which rises and falls on ratings and the holy sacrament of “If it bleeds, it leads.” Louis is the most effective supplier of this, choosing the lowest rated TV station in L.A. so he can bilk it for all it’s worth.
It’s hard to describe too much of the plot without giving much away, except to say that when Louis films the aftermath of a domestic bloodbath before the cops show up, he ends up all but manipulating the news in order to get the footage. He’s morally bankrupt, but we find ourselves glued to the action. We also find ourselves laughing at how willing this screenplay is to go for the throat. We laugh even when it isn’t appropriate. Take, for example, the moment at the end when two people have an intimate conversation in front of a piece of footage on a screen. It’s a moment so cold and heartless that you can’t help but laugh.