There’s something about Nightcrawler that doesn’t sit right once you walk out of a theater. None of the impressions it wants to deliver last more than a mere moment. The characters are grimy, doing their seedy business in on the dimly-lit L.A. streets and in offices that feel cold and disconnected. As immoral as they might be, the crimes are weirdly acceptable; or at least they are if you find the concept of men looking for car accidents, murders, and robberies to film and sell to news stations more amusing than not.
And that’s exactly what Dan Gilroy’s pitch-black comedy is about: a sociopath of a man, Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal), who sells all sorts of messed-up footage to a news department head (Russo) willing to do anything for ratings. Along the way, Bloom brings plenty of others down in his attempt to prove he’s the best at what he does, and the situations he finds himself in to get footage are what makes Nightcrawler more interesting than not.
With Bloom’s dead-set attitude in place, the adventures to capture some good footage range from intense car crashes to invading the home of a murdered family; all of this, of course, before the cops arrive. In fact, the latter situation is easily the best mounted in the entire film. We watch Bloom trying to get all of the footage physically possible in the most artistic way he can, and as unsettling as it is, it’s almost amusing. He practically tracks through the house the way you might expect from a giallo filmmaker like Argento mounting a tracking shot through an upper-scale home.
As interesting of a comparison point as that is, it’s doubtful that kind of influence was on Gilroy’s mind when making it. That being said, Nightcrawler wears most of its influences right on its sleeve, never feeling much shame in milking them for all they’re worth. Sadly, they’re not worth all that much. Its greatest influence though being Network, both in its critique of network television’s exploitation of events for ratings and in the way it poorly attempts to showcase Rene Russo as a hard-ass Faye Dunaway style character. It fails on the latter, making Russo easy to manipulate and not providing enough good writing for her to prove her worth. But on the former, it actually succeeds, although not so much in the way in the way it tackles that subject. As for its stylistic approach, it’s as if Robert Elswit – whose work with Paul Thomas Anderson I’m particularly fond of – was attempting to broach the look of a Michael Mann film and falling short. This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t boast some gorgeous shots, but Mann’s vision is hard to imitate.
If anything, both the humor and unsettling feel of the film falls somewhere between two other films, both from an era in which Nightcrawler might have flourished more than today: the nineties. In many ways, the film works as a nice companion piece to Gus Van Sant’s superior To Die For. Sure, Kidman’s Suzanne strives to be in front of the camera and Gyllenhaal’s Bloom longs to be behind it, but the similarities are hard to deny. When it comes to the way the film often indulges in the morbidity of the events that Bloom is filming, it’s almost like the same fascination that David Cronenberg once held for car accidents and their bloody aftermaths in Crash is present on screen. Nowhere near as gruesome, of course, but the way the camera lingers at times echoes that unsettling feeling you’d get from watching one of the master’s works.
None of these influences impact Gyllenhaal’s performance though, which could be argued is Nightcrawler‘s best asset; and I say that while ignoring his weight loss and antisocial prep work (because starvation is not a deciding factor of Good Acting). After not being quite so convinced by his work in Enemy and Prisoners, it was refreshing to see the actor actually fall into a character completely on screen. The oily pushed-back hair and the smarmy attitude and grin he always wears sell his dark side beautifully, but one can’t help but wonder if someone like William Friedkin might have been better suited to capture this kind of gleeful madness on film instead of the relatively inexperienced Gilroy.
But, as a directorial feature debut, Nightcrawler does what it does effectively enough; unpleasant when necessary and delightfully comical even when it shouldn’t be. It’s nice to see that writer-director Gilroy has made a solid feature – and, more importantly, moved on from writing such bland works like Two for the Money, Real Steel, and The Bourne Legacy – but whether or not he stops relying on the work of other filmmakers in the future will be what determines how good he really is.
Directed by Dan Gilroy; written by Dan Gilroy; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed; 117 minutes
Nightcrawler is currently playing in theaters everywhere.