The glittering lights of night-time LA provide the backdrop to the opening credits of Nightcrawler; as dawn arrives, the city’s landscape is swamped in the suffocating noise of the mass-media, with radio and cable-TV stations unflinchingly reporting the sordid details of the night just passed. Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut hums with electric energy.
Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) cruises the streets of LA looking for ways to make a fast buck. He preys upon the city’s weaknesses for his personal gain, beats up police officers who intervene, then steals their possessions. Yet Bloom can’t be dismissed as a careless, reckless maniac. He’s more an astute and calculating sociopath, with an armoury of natty aphorisms and motivational one-liners, betraying a mind that has consumed an unhealthy number of self-help books.
Heading home after another night spent stealing and mugging, Bloom discovers the world of TV crime reporting: a burning car wreck has attracted the attention of film crews who swarm, vulture-like, around the bleeding body of a woman, trying to circumvent the police in order to get the best angle. What’s more, this profession has a mantra that fits perfectly with Bloom’s neat, but morally-adrift, view of the world: ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. Bloom sells a bike to buy a camera, and his own headlines start coming in thick and fast: drunk drivers, home invasions, toddler stabbings.
Quite how dangerous Bloom is seems to leak from the edges of his impossibly placid, boyish facial expression.
Gyllenhaal finds a mesmerising balance between the persona of a cloyingly naive, yet inexplicably successful, entrepreneur and a man who is only ever one wrong turn away from self-annihilation.
Riz Ahmed puts in a likeable performance as Bloom’s twitchy (who wouldn’t be?) assistant Rick, who carries out Bloom’s dirty work in order to scrape together just enough money to get by. They form an intriguing double act, fuelled by different shades of desperation.
Rene Russo is fascinating as the highly-strung News Editor of the channel to whom Bloom sells his unsavoury wares. She wants the stories that will make her ratings soar, and Bloom knows it. Bloom’s need for love, affection, or something baser, becomes just another bullet point on his long list of life goals; Bloom’s uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time becomes another bargaining chip that he can use to carve out his ideals.
The sense of restlessness that rocks the first half of the film is not always sustained. Later, there are unnecessary sequences of dialogue, revisiting ground that has already been well-trodden by earlier, and more subtle, exposition. The deliciously dark comedy of the opening scenes gradually mutates into a farce; possibly mirroring Bloom’s own descent into a mad chaos that even he cannot control, or possibly the narrative symptoms of an idea pushed to its absolute limit.
Either way, Nightcrawler is morbidly compelling cinema that captures the state of 24-hour news and shows just how far it’s drifted from its original purpose. A plethora of local channels serve Los Angeles and other major cities across the US. When they’re all ruthlessly competing for ratings, video journalism becomes a race to the bottom, in order to reach the top of the viewing figures. Journalism, in this microcosm of misery, is no longer about just reporting life; it’s about making a scene, that, as Bloom himself observes, ‘looks so real on TV’.