A great teaser trailer released a few months back hinted that Nightcrawler would present a character study of a manic man determined to get a job (watch it here). Jake Gyllenhaal certainly delivers an intriguing performance as Louis Bloom, the man at the center of Nightcrawler. It’s too bad the film fails to deliver any worthwhile insight into this character. This guy could have been something as interesting as Joaquin Phoenix’s character in The Master. Instead, we get an enigma so opaque you cannot tell whether this man has Asperger’s or is a genuinely psychotic misanthrope.
The movie, a first-time feature for screenwriter-turned-director Dan Gilroy, is a flashy affair on many levels beyond the lead performance — the cinematography, the music, the overall atmosphere. It’s a shame that the idea feels so unsubstantial and even condescending. We meet Louis as he scrounges metal at a rail yard. When a security guard catches him, he beats the guard and steals his watch, which Louis slips on, despite it being too large for his skinny wrist. He then takes the metal he has gathered, which includes manhole covers and chain-link fence, to a scrapyard where he negotiates a price with the taciturn owner. After settling on a price, Louis pitches that he hire him. His eagerness and breathless self-hype are grating. The scrapyard owner shuts him down with, “Why would I hire a thief?”
There’s always freelance work, and Louis finds the right gig after coming across the aftermath of a collision on a highway and watching freelance cameramen gather footage at the bloody wreck. The next day, Louis steals an expensive bicycle and trades it in at a pawn shop for an old handheld camera and a police scanner. He soon finds Rick (Riz Ahmed), a skinny, young homeless man to assist him in his search for car crashes and crime scenes in the early morning hours that freelance newsmen thrive on. Louis’ lack of empathy and gusto for the job gets him close to victims and bloody scenes. A news director at a local TV station with faltering ratings (Rene Russo) is happy to pay his inflated prices for the footage. We follow the two nightcrawlers, as Louis gets more brazen in stepping over ethical boundaries and Rick grows more nervous about the acts.
Gyllenhaal deserves credit for losing himself so deeply in the role of Louis. He lost a ton of weight to give this man a look of having been eaten away from within. But he’s far from fragile. There’s a dynamo inside driven to survive. He’s a kind of vampire, using people with a cartoonish charm that’s sociopathic in its lack of any genuine warmth. He brings a nerve-rattling intensity to the character who seems to hide behind a thin but impenetrable mask of phony, fast-talking charisma. There’s a trapped desperation to Louis behind a surreal composure that seems on the edge of breaking down. He’s like a feral creature with attitude but little substance, which could also describe the movie as a whole.
Louis Bloom should also be recognized as a team effort. Makeup enhances his ashen, wraith-like appearance. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (who’s done amazing work with Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia and There Will Be Blood) mixes the light and shadow so expressively there are several moments when he looks like a cartoon. There’s one scene where he commits a flagrant, ethical no-no as a news photographer: tampers with the scene of a crash for “the shot.” He backs up with his camera to record the aftermath of the wreck, lifts the camera over his head. His eyes bug out. They appear as large white orbs out of a comic panel, shining forth in the wide, dark, distant landscape shot. His face expresses an ecstasy of revelation, seemingly entranced and impressed by his handiwork. As wide as they are, his eyes remain as impenetrable as ever. There’s more to read in his mouth. His jaw drops open to expose a blackness in his maw — once again, the impression of a wraith. He looks like Munch’s Scream, and makes no sound, just like the painting. It’s an impressive moment when the film comes together on the level of image and actor.
There are great action sequences and a dark atmosphere certainly saturates the film. James Newton Howard’s soundtrack is probably the sliest element, oscillating between calm, brooding echoing guitars and hyper-pumped drumming and humming synths as if it were something out of the ‘80s. It’s ironic that the film has the atmosphere of an ‘80s movie because it also feels as dated as one of those films.
In the grand social scheme, Nightcrawler tries to present a critique of superficial news reporting, which has little resonance in today’s era. Any comparison to Network would be pointless. That 1976 film mattered because it was prophetic of today’s current TV anchors/personalities who wear shrill opinions on their sleeves. Nightcrawler’s critique is old news. The idea of “it bleeds, it leads” took over local news reporting in the early ‘90s (and, seriously, must Gilroy have a character in the news business actually use the line in the movie?). Had this film appeared in the ‘80s, it may have been a bit more interesting, but as it stands, it’s like a joke that has fallen flat. That the film only ever builds toward a joke ending instead of a worthy moment of revelation, or at least a vague ambiguous notion of insight, speaks to the slightness of the story.
The problem is Gilroy, who also wrote the script, cannot seem to find his way out of this dark character study. It’s as if he’s written himself into a corner. Louis is presented as a rather impenetrable character, and he remains that way until the end. His only moments of weakness are when he has a solitary tantrum, all alone at home, letting out his frustration on a mirror. The most Gilroy can do to remind us of the compromised moral character of this guy is make sure the giant, loose-fitting watch he stole from the security guard is in frame.
But Nightcrawler still has a fundamental flaw in that there’s hardly anyone to play off morality to. The best we get is the assignment editor (Kevin Rahm) at the news stations who pronounces disapproval and wags a finger at the news director for humoring the footage Louis presents her with. Louis’ homeless assistant also shows a profound sense of right and wrong, but Louis always out reasons the poor, meek man. Their conversations go nowhere except one moment that just might settle the question whether Louis is a misanthrope or a man with Asperger’s. But it remains only a possible glimpse left unexplored.
Nightcrawler runs 117 minutes and is rated R (gore and sex talk). It opens pretty much everywhere today, Friday, Oct. 31 (check for tickets here). Fox Searchlight invited me to a preview screening earlier this month for the purpose of this review.