One of my favorite Bond villains is Elliot Carver. “Who?” you may ask. You know, Elliot Carver! Okay, I grant you that he doesn't have the name recognition of Goldfinger or Blofeld, but he's nonetheless worthy of their company. Carver – who serves as the central antagonist of Tomorrow Never Dies and is played by Jonathan Pryce – is the head of a CNN-like 24-hour news organization, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to dominate the industry. He concocts an ingenious plan: rather than racing to beat others to coverage of major stories, why not just directly cause a few international disasters, thus giving himself ample time to cover them before anyone else? Nightcrawler protagonist Lou Bloom isn't operating at that level of grandeur, but he applies much of Carver's darkly hilarious logic to his own small-scale endeavors.
When we first meet Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal, Zodiac), it's obvious that he's not a man of much character. He steals copper and sells it to a local junkyard, he knocks a man unconscious and steals his watch... and yet, he aspires to be more than a mere small-time criminal. One night, he encounters a freelance video journalist (Bill Paxton, Frailty) filming footage of a gruesome car wreck. Lou is fascinated by the process, and requests a job. The journalist declines, so Lou decides to go into business for himself. He acquires a police scanner and a camcorder, and begins prowling the streets at night in search of sensational stories to film. He finds one, and sells the footage to a local news channel. “You have a good eye,” the news director (Rene Russo, Thor) tells him.
That isn't the only thing she tells him. The channel she works for has been struggling in the ratings, and she needs all the help she can get to turn things around. Sensing that Lou might have the talent to become a valuable asset, she nudges him in right direction. Find accidents, but only if they're bloody or graphic. Find stories that involve violence – but not violence against minorities, because viewers don't really care. Find stories that are frightening – particularly stories that will frighten wealthy white viewers. “If it bleeds, it leads,” the saying goes, but Russo puts it in more specific terms: “Picture our news as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” Lou understands, and responds with enthusiasm.
Nightcrawler may sound like an angry condemnation of the world of television news, but it isn't. Ratings-hungry journalists do unethical things? Billy Wilder and Sidney Lumet told us a few things about that decades ago. No, Nightcrawler is something else entirely: a dark and occasionally unsettling comedy in the vein of The King of Comedy or American Psycho. It doesn't suggest that the world of television news is populated by psychopaths; merely that a psychopath could easily thrive in such an environment. “I think that TV news may be something that I love in addition to being something I'm good at,” Lou muses. The further the film goes, the more savagely funny and creepy that line becomes.
Gyllenhaal does some of the best work of his career as Lou, fully disappearing in the depths of this strange, funny, frightening role. His eyes bulge out of his head, he rarely blinks and he talks in a manner that makes him sound as if he's always quoting something from a press release or a motivational speaker's book. Even when he's delivering his most ruthless insults, he looks and sounds like he's hosting a training video. Lou's a creep of the first order, but I love him, because he's a character who cuts right to the heart of America's terrifyingly impersonal, bottom line-focused business culture. The joke gets even nastier during Gyllenhaal's scenes with Russo, in which negotiations over violent footage begin to double as sexual blackmail. Even composer James Newton Howard generates a chuckle or two, scoring Lou's alarming “success montages” with upbeat '80s synths.
The film was written and directed by Dan Gilroy, brother of Tony (who gave us Michael Clayton and Duplicity). This Gilroy demonstrates a similar knack for strong characterization and basic craftsmanship, but there's even more bubbling beneath the surface here. He's also a terrific action director. Nightcrawler isn't an action movie in the traditional sense, but the film sports a handful of chaotic sequences which Gilroy turns into edge-of-your-seat thrill rides. It's in these scenes that the film achieves much of its smirking irony, clearly detailing the ugliness of Lou's sensationalism while eagerly engaging in some sensationalism of its own. We're not above manipulation even when we're fully aware we're being manipulated, and until that changes, there will plenty of room for the Lou Blooms of the world to thrive. This is a smart, thrilling, cynical movie, and the fact that Lou himself would probably fall head over heels for it only adds to its caustic hilarity.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 117 minutes
elease Year: 2014