From the very first time the audience sees Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the buggy central focus of Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, it’s clear that there’s something dark, unforgiving, and bestial lurking beneath his near-skeletal visage. When a cop catches him stealing sections of chain-link fence for scrap, Bloom attacks him like a scared wolverine caught in a corner. There’s always a sense of that underlying fury and fear in Gyllenhaal’s strikingly unnerving performance, especially when he feigns warmth and humanity as a cover for insatiable opportunism. Gilroy’s script presents Bloom as a capitalistic insect, one who finds money and increasing demand as a footage jockey for a Los Angeles news station, but as a critique of modern media, which it very blatantly is, Gilroy’s directorial debut only offers a familiar vision of today’s newsman and producers as misery peddlers, and callow ratings slaves bordering on the monstrous.
The writer-director certainly gives Gyllenhaal’s eerie creature an ideal habitat: an almost entirely nocturnal Los Angeles teeming with hustlers, killers, and tragedy after tragedy. It’s not until Bloom bumps into Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), the proprietor of Mayhem Video, a freelance camera crew that captures the aftermath of car accidents, fires, home invasions, and worse, that he gets the idea that death and fear sell. Within no time at all, he makes inroads with Rene Russo’s Nina, a local news segment producer, upgrades from his dusty shit-box to a polished Dodge Challenger, and enlists the help of a desperate homeless man, Rick (Riz Ahmed). And as Bloom begins to cross the line more frequently, disturbing crime scenes and holding off reporting crimes to get an edge, it becomes clear that Gilroy is confronting not just the media, but the very notion of how filmmakers use and frame violence to stoke viewer’s interest.
Indeed, Nightcrawler’s central event revolves around Bloom’s framing and capturing of a brutal triple homicide on film in an affluent section of L.A., before the police even arrive. He also captures the identity of the murderers, a fact that he withholds from investigators and Nina in order to gain a better bargaining position. While inside the house, Bloom gets several angles of each butchered body; earlier, he even drags a body at a car wreck to get a better image. There’s a mild but irrefutably present bit of self-excoriation for Gilroy in these scenes, as the filmmaker depends on presenting murder and violence in very precise ways for his audience. Sadly, he doesn’t develop this deeply alluring aspect of his narrative. Instead, he takes the moral high ground via Ahmed’s conflicted character, and in a final twist, provides a shallowly cynical condemnation of the press that reveals a pointed preference for banal pessimism over further exploration of how his own profession thrives off of illicit, even sexy images of murder, pain, and blood.
In the middle of Gilroy’s death-strewn L.A. is Bloom, wide-eyed and nervy but utterly focused, and it’s ultimately Gyllenhaal’s portrayal that drives the film. He makes Bloom’s rampant efficiency and counterfeit friendliness into a nightmarish force, especially in a scene where he passive-aggressively bullies Nina into sleeping with him for the promise of more footage. Words like “growth” and “implement” take on a ghoulish quality in Bloom’s speech, as if he’s amid a never-ending sales pitch, and lines like “I have to go home and do some accounting” speak not only to his comical obsession with money, but to his inability to relate to anyone in terms other than business. He’s a vampire, sustained only on suffering and income, but what Gilroy misses is why he’s allowed to feed so freely, what makes his viewers so hungry for what he’s peddling. Rather, Nightcrawler boils down to a satire of lapsed ethics and empty “you can, you will” philosophies, and a long-form reminder of a forever-relevant adage: if it bleeds, it leads.