Response Journal: Nightcrawler (2014)

How to make it in America

A chilly satire about perverted entrepreneurship and the unscrupulous media, Nightcrawler is worthwhile. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a sociopathic self-starter who finds his calling with nocturnal freelance news photography. Eavesdropping on police scanners he speeds around Los Angeles’s hairpin highways and mountainsides to capture the bloody aftermaths of crashes, structure fires and homicides. He then sells the footage, the more shocking the better, to the highest bidding networks. With greasy hair, a suit pulled from a manikin at a department store for recluse pedophiles, and the grin and gait of a released mental patient, Gyllenhaal plays creepy surprisingly well. The character’s antisocial peculiarities manifest in the way Gyllenhaal speaks as if he’s reading an instructional brochure and turns every conversation into a negotiation: Bloom’s sexual advances toward a desperate TV producer (Rene Russo) fall somewhere between bartering and blackmail. The baroque cinematography and seedy production design combine to turn LA landmarks—Santa Monica Pier, Griffith Park, and Hollywood Boulevard, et al—into stops along the River Styx as Bloom becomes the Beelzebub of ambush journalism, more aggressively chasing premium stock and attempting to establish a successful brand, which includes eliminating the competition (Bill Paxton) and exploiting a naïve intern (Riz Ahmed). Moreover writer-director Dan Gilroy blends various genre elements rather smoothly—in a car-chase Bloom films police on a high-speed pursuit; a suspense set-piece unfolds as he sneaks into a home, burglary in progress; gory images complement breakfast for morning-news consumers; and in an astonishing instance of black comedy Bloom explains good business practices to a dying gunshot victim. As a character study of a nighttime loner who descends into madness amid urban sprawl, the movie is like Taxi Driver for the Internet Age; but whereas Travis Bickle was a misguided romantic, Bloom is a coldblooded misanthrope whose unsavory ambitions make him closer to some machine-like metaphor for cutthroat capitalism than a breathing human being. Such simplistic characterization, dialogue that too explicitly conveys themes and James Newton Howard’s emotionally pushy score deprive the movie of the psychological illuminants of finer pulp filmmaking. In the end, though, I think Nightcrawler prefers the shadows and makes engaging enough the morbid cynicism it finds there.

Cinematography by Robert Elswit. Production design by Kevin Kavanaugh.

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