In a year of cinematic duds, “Nightcrawler” is a daring and highly satisfying standout. This film is both viscerally emotional and bristling with interesting thoughts. I’ll deal first with the feels and then with the thoughts, many of which relate to this week’s A&E theme of the World Wide Web.
In terms of its tone, “Nightcrawler” has already beencompared to “Taxi Driver.” Both films are, after all, eerie and prescient portraits of loners making their way through the scuzzy underbellies of great American cities. But whereas Martin Scorsese’s hot-blooded, highly sensual direction brought a sense of poetic despair to “Taxi Driver,” Dan Gilroy directs “Nightcrawler” with a savvy sense of detachment that invites us to view the journey of its main character as a kind of dark (and I do mean dark) comedy.
Plot-wise, “Nightcrawler” tells the story of Louis Bloom, a self-described “self-made man” who, after years of taking webinars and sitting around on forums, decides to get himself a job. When legit job offers don’t come knocking, he decides to be a “nightcrawler”, a freelance cameraman who breaks laws and risks lives in order to capture grisly, violent events for TV news stations.
Lou rises to the top with the help of an observant assistant (Riz Ahmed) and a ball-busting news executive. But when success comes knocking, he starts treating his two partners not as equals, but as submissive underlings in his scheme to rise to the top of his field. The second half of the film is all about the hypnotic nightmare of Lou’s power trip.
That power-crazy mad-man is, by the way, the best thing that this picture has going for it. Lou isn’t just the kind of generic screw-loose sociopath who actors so often play when they’ve got an Oscar win on the brain. He’s an endlessly fascinating bundle of contradictions””ceaselessly polite yet ruthlessly uncaring, affectingly childlike yet addicted to violence, extremely orderly yet filled to the brim with messy emotions.
I could write an entire article on how Lou’s contradictions are also America’s. Instead, focus on the one clear fact about Lou: the actor who brings him to life has given the performance of his career in this motion picture. Jake Gyllenhaal’s spent most of his career taking the back-seat to more obviously compelling stars, but he inhabits Lou with a freaky magnetism all his own. His line readings are spot-on, but one must also pay attention to his “non-verbals” his awkward hand gestures, his empty, almost diseased eyes.
This is a bone-deep performance. Sure, Gyllenhaal overdoes it once or twice, but there isn’t a moment when he isn’t seriously invested in this character, which he has to be in order for the screenplay to then undercut that seriousness with its sly humour.
This brings me back around to my opening point: “Nightcrawler” is not a tragedy, like “Taxi Driver.” It is a pitch-black comedy that has a lot in common with “Network,” Paddy Chayefsky’s merciless satire of 1970s TV news. By using out-of-place music, bizarre camera angles and subtly ironic lines, this film asks us to laugh at the circus of modern media. Not “funny ha-ha” laughter, mind you: the kind of wincing gasp-laughter that comes to you when you’re jabbed with a syringe.
However, the film pulls off this kind of discomfort with such precision that it becomes enjoyable. It keeps poking us where it hurts, and we sit there in awe of its accurate aim.
One aspect of society that the film discusses accurately is the attitude of a generation shaped by the net. Sure, the film satirizes the outrage machine ofcontemporary news (and that John writes about so brilliantly on page 15,) but it also digs its teeth into the detrimental effects of the Internet.
Lou is constantly reminding us that he is a self-made man, one who learned the tricks of his trade primarily via the isolation of his computer screen. Lou has grown up in an unsupervised cyber-world where people are merely abstractions on the other side of a screen. Is it any wonder that he’s so willing to treat real people as inanimate pawns in his crazy game?
Ultimately, you should go see “Nightcrawler” primarily for Gyllenhaal’s performance.But you should also see it for its potent warning about what might happen to those among us who come of age in the cold, uncaring light of cyberspace.