Nightcrawler (2014) / Thriller-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for violence including graphic images, and for language
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Michael Hyatt, Kevin Rahm, Rick Chambers, Kent Shocknek
Director: Dan Gilroy
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy
Review published October 31, 2014
Imagine if two of Robert De Niro's most memorable characters from Martin Scorsese's films, sociopathic Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver and fame-seeking Rupert Pupkin from King Of Comedy, were rolled into one amoral guy with delusions of grandeur, and you'd likely have Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal, Enemy) the protagonist in writer-director Dan Gilroy's dark satire, a la Network, of the lurid side of the highly competitive local broadcast news business, and what people will do to make a buck.
Gyllenhaal plays Bloom, an unemployed Los Angelino who resorts to theft and looting in order to make a buck, though he is trying to find a real job, any job. Lo and behold, he sees an opportunity to make a quick buck when he sees a man called Joe Loder (Paxton, Edge of Tomorrow) filming the scene of a horrific accident, then turns around and negotiates for hundreds of dollars with the news department of a local station for the bloody footage to use on their next edition. "If it bleeds, it leads," is the mantra of the operation.
Pawning off some hot items for a video camera and a police scanner, Louis tries to be at the scene of the crime wherever there will be a hot ticket that channel 5, led by nightly news producer Nina Romina (Russo, Thor: The Dark World), wants to show the exclusive footage captured. His unscrupulous tactics and willingness to break the law to get what he needs to get makes him the perfect guy for the job, though it would seem only a matter of time before his reckless driving, endangerment and tampering with the scene of the crime will make him the next statistic, especially when he begins to get the notion of staging events to get the exclusive footage of crimes as they happen.
Screenwriter Gilroy (Two for the Money, The Bourne Legacy) is making quite a splash with his debut directorial effort, ripping the lid off of the rampant exploitation involved with giving people who watch the news plenty to keep their eyes riveted to the screen, even if the actual worth of the information disseminated is not really newsworthy beyond the sensational camera footage. Particularly troubling is the awareness of its audience, in which black-on-black crime is seen as not even newsworthy, but when white suburban citizens are in even a hint of danger, it becomes the most important story of the news cast. As loathsome as the acts are, the film lures us into its salaciousness by keeping us reeled in to just how far things can go before something hits the breaking point.
A gaunt Gyllenhaal (he reportedly lost 20 lbs. for the role) is riveting as Louis, a man so morally bankrupt, he behaves almost like an alien being come to Earth, with no conscience or even basic connection to the emotional concerns of any other living being around him, and yet he's studied them so efficiently, he knows how they will react in any given situation. His ability to negotiate includes using his increasingly elevated position to leverage better deals (some of those even under the table), and can do so by being brutally honest about why the person on the other side has to take what is offered without question. He's a predator, only out to do that which will make him money, and sees nothing wrong with his actions given that there is a news agency willing to praise and reward him for every piece of ill-gotten footage he can provide that will boost their almighty ratings. The movie refreshingly doesn't try to give Louis a back story as to how someone could become such a vile human being, which makes him all the more creepy and unpredictable in our eyes; we can't figure out his angle, because his is always so skewed.
Supporting players are equally up to the task, with Rene Russo, Dan Gilroy's wife of over 20 years, thriving in her juiciest role in years, if not decades, as the ice queen who, at a late stage of her career, knows she needs to take moral and ethical risks, attaching herself to Louis if she hopes to stick around any longer in a dog-eat-dog industry. British actor Riz Ahmed (Closed Circuit) is also strong as Louis' one-step-away-from-homeless lackey, Rick, whose own shock at the misdeeds of his employer is critical in giving the film the balance it needs in terms of keeping the human element on display, if only to show how inhuman Louis truly is. And Bill Paxton is fantastic in a smaller role as the more professional rival, Joe Loder, who finds himself losing ground to a man who has no perception of the lines he is crossing to decency.
The film is riveting up until the climax, which eventually falls into a couple of outcomes of predictability, as police begin to investigate just what's going on in the insidious relationship between a desperate news station and a possibly illegal news gathering service. It's not enough to break the film -- not even close -- but it does seem a mild letdown given that the build-up is such dynamite. Nevertheless, some of the scenes of speeding cars, and a destructive police chase during the climax, are incredibly well staged and strikingly shot by Robert Elswit (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, The Men Who Stare at Goats) and edited by the director's twin brother John Gilroy (Pacific Rim, Michael Clayton), sleekly seductive under the neon-lit streets of LA.
Even if it begins to become a bit more conventional and contrived toward the end, Nightcrawler has reeled us in sufficiently enough to still be one of the best thrillers of the year, and one of the best satires on the current profit-based media and reality TV culture in many. Like the seamy footage presented on the evening news, Nightcrawler is unnerving to the point where it is hard to watch, yet so gripping that you can't take your eyes off of the screen.
©2014 Vince Leo