Review: Nightcrawler

Having seen the trailer for Nightcrawler, writer-director Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir about the dark side of video journalism, I was hopeful that the film of the year may have arrived. It was clear that we were in for a career highlight performance from Jake Gyllenhaal and the theme of a voracious media concerned with only the most lurid and graphic of reportage seemed like a theme that, although nothing new, was ripe for scrutiny in a modern context.

So it was a disappointment to find that if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve essentially seen Nightcrawler.

The best bits are in the trailer

It is a common gripe of the movie-going masses that trailers increasingly give away too much about the films they promote. However, in the case of Nightcrawler it isn’t simply an instance of “the best bits are in the trailer”, although they are. Rather, it is more a case that the trailer is Nightcrawler and as such represents the problem with the film: it is sleekly shot and put together but ultimately so shallow plot-wise that its narrative can be told entirely within a two minute trailer.

Ambitious yet sociopathic

Take for instance a scene where Gyllenhaal’s character, the ruthlessly ambitious yet sociopathic Louis Bloom, has a momentary moment of madness and smashes a mirror. I had hoped, since seeing part of that scene in the trailer, that it was part of a much bigger narrative event whereby Lou would reveal his essential nastiness in an extended breakdown. The potential for a real deconstruction of what looked to be a fascinating character, especially considering Gyllenhaal’s unsettlingly good performance, was enough to make me want to see the film.

But there is no more and no less of this scene in the final product than there is in the trailer. Rather than being the moment when Lou begins to unravel and we learn about some of the issues underlying his coldly entrepreneurial demeanour, it is as long and as complex as what is shown in the trailer. Lou gets a bit angry due to a competitor besting him and smashes a mirror before composing himself. Nothing more.

It could be argued that this is in keeping with the character and that such a brief outburst is precisely what you would expect from someone so unfeeling and fastidious. But this only serves to highlight the film’s second major flaw. The question becomes, if it isn’t a character study, due to a script seemingly unwilling to push it’s characters enough to illicit any real insight, then what is it? Unfortunately it is not clear that the film or its creators know the answer.

There’s no question that Nightcrawler is about Jake Gyllenhaal and his character. His performance is the best thing about it, and there is a lot of it to take in. There is barely a scene in which Lou isn’t present, slinking through a darkly depicted Los Angeles backdrop. A thief who spends his nights stealing wire fencing and other materials he can sell to local scrap yards and pawn shops, the superficially affable but deeply manipulative Lou is governed by a series of theories and principles which he has imbibed from years of online courses and research. His one goal, which he will stop at nothing to achieve, is simply to succeed in whatever career he can carve out.

Corporate platitudes

In this sense, the script initially seems to be concerned with interrogating a hypothetical, i.e. what would happen if the kind of corporate platitudes, so valued in entrepreneurial culture, became the sole basis for a human being’s moral framework?

The intriguing disparity that arises between an absolute commitment to learned business principles and a complete rejection of moral ones is one begging to be explored. But as Lou witnesses the aftermath of a car crash on the freeway, attended by a frantic freelance video journalist, and begins his own video news gathering business, the film’s purpose becomes less clear. It seems to turn its attention somewhat to exploring the questionable ethics of modern news media and what will and won’t sell in the culture it has wrought.

Lou finds a somewhat desperate news editor, Nina, played adeptly by Rene Russo, at the lowest rated news station in Los Angeles. Her willingness to suppress her own moral conscience in favour of her appetite for the kind of graphic footage of car crashes and crimes that Lou provides gives him a way into the news business. But as the footage gets increasingly questionable and Nina’s desire for it more and more insatiable, the film’s second major theme starts to jar with the first. The commentary on the nihilism and tawdriness of modern culture and news media is too big a topic to be a minor theme to what initially seemed the major one, i.e. Lou as a character study.

And it is Lou’s haunting intrigue which means whatever vague point is being made about the morality, of lack thereof, of the modern world, it is made even more indeterminate as it is inevitably obfuscated by the sheer power of both Lou as a character and Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of him. As his abject pathology becomes more and more evident so too does the script’s unwillingness to push him to the edge. In Lou, it is as if the most insufferable corners of the internet, from which he sourced the numerous business ideals and adages that make up his constitution, have churned out a flesh and blood version of themselves and unleashed it upon the streets of LA. As this creature becomes further embroiled in increasingly questionable nightly escapades to get the bloody footage he needs, I found I was desperate for Lou’s eventual encounter with a suspicious and steadfast detective to develop into a fevered final act where they face off. However, as with most of the rest of the events on-screen, all this amounted to was the brief interrogation between the detective and him we have seen in the trailer.

A strange film

Riz Ahmed as Rick, Lou’s trainee protege, provides somewhat of a counterpoint to Gyllenhaal’s chilling portrayal. Rick is a homeless young man who struggles with Lou’s questionable methods. Ahmed, like his co-stars, is genuinely engaging in the role and his character seems to be the only one who is really pushed morally by the script. But it is a strange film which chooses to build up a story around an intriguing and complicated character and then put all its effort into challenging a comparatively minor one.

The above being said, Nightcrawler is worth seeing for the performances and cinematography, ably handled by There Will Be Blood cinematographer Robert Elswit. A good job is done of presenting a suitably seedy Los Angeles for the equally seedy events in the film to unfold within, and the themes dealt with, although not nearly explored to the extent they could be, are thought provoking enough as ideas in and of themselves.

But there is an inescapable feeling that Nightcrawler is missing a final act. The potential mayhem that missing act could contain is, like the morality so effortlessly suppressed in Gilroy’s broken Los Angeles culture, haunting the whole affair, and like the grisly material that Lou’s camera captures, desperate for the glare of the camera to be turned on it.