Nightcrawler is a black comedy that goes right to the jugular of ratings obsessed Los Angeles TV news. The media and the protagonist’s mantra of “if it bleeds it leads” slowly becomes a terrifyingly literal guiding principle over the course of the film.
Satirising the sensationalisation of wall-to-wall news coverage that focuses exclusively on violence, Nightcrawler is that rarest of cinematic unicorns: a satire that skewers its marks precisely through fully exploring its characters, and one that presents a version of LA that feels fresh and interesting.
The film opens on Los Angeles at night with gradual cuts between shots as the camera traces a slow journey from the city’s outer limits; through the forest of oil derricks and transmission poles; drawing the camera and the viewer into the beating artificial heart of the city.
This is a setting we’ve gotten complacent about seeing on cinema screens, shot from every angle till we feel nostalgia for sights and scenes we’ve never seen ourselves. Instead of the Hollywood sign and Sunset Strip, Malibu and movie studios, though; LA is transformed at night into a ghost-town of light trails from cars passing, and washed out Edward Hopper diners.
Nightcrawler succeeds partly because it can recast the city so convincingly, but mostly because it has enough confidence in itself to ignore the impossible glamour, and focus on working studios, roadsides, cafes, and crime scenes at the dead of night. Interiors are spaces where computer monitors and readouts, TV screens and lighting rigs are the only source of direct illumination.
The sound design does a similar job of disorientating and emphasising the cacophony of modern LA with swarms of cross-cut news clips: disembodied voices wishing everyone in Los Angeles a good morning and a warm welcome to hell as a news cycle obsessed with violent crime starts churning again.
The film knows it can do without the obvious signifiers, nods winks and tourist fodder because it wants to really focus in on the people who make the news, and the rise of a character incapable of telling fantasy from reality but frighteningly capable of getting what he wants.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom as a kind of ageless, ghostly sociopathic vampire: stalking the streets of LA in a blood red car, film camera in hand and police radio scanner at the ready, he races to film the victims of crime that the news so loves to cover.
But he’s a monster with a work ethic, a self-taught eloquence, and a surgically precise sense of how to get what he wants from people. He introduces himself to people like he’s interviewing for a job, identifies key players, networks, schemes, sleazes and blackmails his way through the running time.
In fact he’s so focused on his goals that the film only shows us one moment where he loses complete control, and it’s all the more effective for hinting at Lou’s pathology, rather than have him froth at the mouth and go all Nic Cage on us.
When we meet first meet him he’s on the outskirts of LA, scavenging for scrap metal to sell and the film works well setting up a consistent theme of boundaries and what might creep across them. Like any good vampire Lou can’t seem to cross the threshold into any setting without being invited in
His big break comes when he strikes up a partnership with Rene Russo’s morning news director, Nina. Once he’s got a foot in the door he goes to any lengths to make himself invaluable to the station and watching the people close to Lou begin to understand the kinds of lengths he’ll go to. “If it bleeds it leads” is the old tabloid cliché, and in Nightcrawler, this informs every move Lou makes as his proper role of passive witness to these tragic stories begins to slide.
Comparisons are going to be made with Ryan Golsing in ‘Drive’ (2011), and the films do share amongst other things: a producer; a palette of neon; misanthropic anti-heroes obsessed with professionalism; cruising around a city made unfamiliar; and a fetish for American muscle cars.
Both films are trying to accomplish very different things despite the shared aesthetic, and too much close comparison does both a disservice though. Nightcrawler feels like a more satisfyingly direct movie experience, more concretely satirical, and less abstracted than the neo-noir odyssey of Drive, So the contrast will be fascinating when they’re inevitably screened together).
In place of Drive‘s rumination on 80’s action movies and heroes, the director of Nightcrawler makes the most the fantastic cast to really reinforce the real-world bite of the media satire. Watching the rise of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom, our protagonist, from petty crook to ruthless media entrepreneur is occasionally upsetting, often unsettling, but most often exhilarating.