Though it may be a bit single minded in its criticism of the media, Nightcrawler is nevertheless a very engaging film. It takes you into the dangerous and amoral world of television news, scouring the streets of Los Angeles at night for violence and pulp. Beautifully photographed and wonderfully acted, Nightcrawler is an intense film whose only fault is its one track mind.
The “nightcrawler” of the title is Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a ravenous young man who cruises the streets of LA at night, looking for footage he can sell to local news stations. Lou is less of a human being and more of an amalgam of everything that’s wrong with our media saturated society. He is very driven to succeed, so much so that he ignores any sense of morality other characters try to remind him of. He stumbles upon this career path after selling stolen copper wire to a junkyard, and pursues it single-mindedly in the hopes that he will one day become a television executive. He hires an associate, Rick (Riz Ahmed) and cultivates a relationship with the news director of channel 6, Nina (Rene Russo). As he becomes more and more focused on advancing his career, he disregards more journalistic ethics and laws, much to the delight of the station, whose ratings significantly improve.
The message of this film is not hard to find, and it’s one we’ve heard over and over again. Television shows too much violence, and is more focused on ratings than humanity. We see Lou put countless lives in danger, all in the name of advancing his career. He disturbs evidence, withholds information from the police, and even masterminds future crimes, all so he can get better footage than any of the other “nightcrawlers” (one of whom is played by Bill Paxton). It is horrifying to see what he does, but it’s also not surprising given you can tell where this film is going from the second you get a look at Gyllenhaal’s terrifyingly sunken face. You can tell this guy is completely nuts and that he’s going to go to extremes, and because the criticism of violence in the media has been set up equally well, you can tell exactly where this thing is going, and it’s a little disappointing.
Thankfully, it is only a little. Even though this film’s agenda is abundantly clear, you can’t look away from the film. Much of this is due to Gyllenhaal’s performance, he does “guy who seems nice but is actually completely insane” better than almost anybody, and his performance as Lou is no exception to that rule. He has exactly the right amount of subtlety; he only goes over the top in one scene (when he smashes the mirror) and it’s extremely effective. As with many of his performances, you don’t realize how well he’s done until you stop watching the movie and you realize all of the character ticks he’s built in. Lou is truly a “nightcrawler,” he hardly ever just walks onto a scene, he creeps, huddled over his camera. Gyllenhaal’s manipulation of his appearance is also very worrying; he’s obviously lost quite a bit of weight for this film, giving him a constantly hungry look in his eyes, which are practically bulging out of his head. His hair is always greasy and stringy, like he can’t actually stop working long enough to take a shower or clean up. His constant sprawling of corporate jargon (praise meant for the screenwriter here) makes him seem more like a product of society than an actual person. He has grown out of a society that tells people to do whatever they must to achieve success, no matter the other poor slobs who get in the way.
The film is also wonderfully shot; the car chase scenes at night are some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory (in fact since Deakins’ work on another Gyllenhaal film, Prisoners). The camera is moving very fast along with the cars, pulling you along with them. The film captures LA at night as sort of a lurid wasteland, with neon signs and car headlights lighting up the blood of accident victims in the darkness. The film also uses the red and blue lights of police cars to great effect, the lights wash across Gyllenhaal’s face, making look completely demented (and also more than a little reminiscent of Travis Bickle behind the wheel of his taxi).
Nightcrawler is a very good film. The only criticism I have of it is mostly due to the overall feeling of familiarity I got while watching the film. I enjoyed it immensely but I felt like I had seen its basic plot and message before, and was therefore less shocked when supposedly shocking events unfolded. This probably will not be the case for everyone, and the film is very well made so even though I wasn’t as shocked as I probably should have been, I was still on board with everything that was happening. I’m honestly not sure what they could have done to heighten the impact of this film for me, so I think I’m sort of making this problem up to a certain extent. Gyllenhaal’s very good here, his character is well developed, the supporting players are good, the criticism of the media is relevant even if unoriginal, and the cinematography is great as well. Overall, the good points of the film far outweigh my small criticism.
“On TV, it looks so real.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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