For most of us, the sight of a car crash on the side of a busy motorway would probably inspire horror or a jolt of sympathy. For gaunt, saucer-eyed opportunist Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the spotting a mangled car means one thing: there’s money to be made.
Initially making money by selling purloined lengths of chain link fence and manhole covers for scrap, Lou happens to spot a new business opportunity during one of his lonely midnight drives around Los Angeles. As California highway cops try to pull injured passengers from the smouldering husk of a car, a freelance cameraman named Jon (Bill Paxton) is busy trying to get his lens as close to the devastation as possible. Jon’s a nightcrawler – a photographer who specialises in capturing graphic footage of accidents and crimes and selling it to local television news channels.
Inspired by Jon’s example, Lou makes a beeline for his nearest thrift store, buys a cheap camcorder and police radio scanner, and heads out into the benighted LA streets to see what he can capture for himself. Before long, he’s filming the bloody aftermaths of shootings, car accidents and robberies, and selling it to an editor at struggling news channel KCLA, Nina (Rene Russo).
For Lou, it’s the beginning of a lucrative new career. Unfazed by the sight of blood and apparently oblivious to police procedure, Lou takes ever greater risks in the quest for his sensational footage, spurred on by Nina’s insatiable appetite for stories of Los Angeles’ violent streets. Never mind that crime rates are actually falling; news pieces about violence spreading into quiet suburban communities are what captivate TV audiences. “I want something people can’t look away from”, she snarls.
(“Imagine a woman running down the street with her throat cut,” Nina later adds – an apt and possibly intentional allusion to a famous line from George Orwell.)
Nightcrawler offers a downbeat and extreme version of American TV news, where reporting the truth is less important than creating a climate of fear, but it’s as a portrait of its outsider character Lou that it most impresses. Russo is great value as the coldly cynical Nina, and Riz Ahmed sympathetic as Lou’s ‘intern’ – a homeless and vulnerable young man who Lou hires as his navigator and assistant cameraman. But Nightcrawler is Gyllenhaal’s movie. Much of the action focuses not on the crimes he captures through his lens but on his drawn, almost unreadable face.
Like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, or Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (also about an outsider with a creepy penchant for filming things), Nightcrawler presents a character who’s as compelling to watch as he is morally repugnant. Although he lacks a conscience, Lou’s also fiercely driven, and it’s oddly fascinating to see where that drive to succeed will lead him.
It’s a hard-to-read, owl-like performance from Gyllenhaal, an actor who’s already brought us unusual, edgy performances in such films as Donnie Darko, End Of Watch, Prisoners and the superb Zodiac. His turn here is, however, something to be reckoned with: he’s unpredictable, charming, reckless and, we sometimes suspect, a sociopath.
Even when the film around him starts to drag – writer-director Dan Gilroy allowing his own camera to linger a little too long on the in-car battle of wills between Lou and his increasingly bewildered underling – Gyllenhaal holds the screen, and his scenes with Russo are particularly electric. As Lou’s power grows, he takes on the role of a kind of drug dealer to Nina’s news-hungry editor, whose eyes widen at the increasingly shocking footage Lou dangles in front of her.
Nightcrawler isn’t short of thriller moments, but it’s equally laden with night-black comic touches. A student of the internet, Lou has steeped himself in the corporate speak of wealthy chief executives; hilariously, Lou has but one employee, whom he placates with pep-talks, careers advice and promises of job titles while begrudgingly paying him $30 per night.
It’s Nightcrawler’s witty writing, cinematographer Robert Elswit’s sharp depiction of a lonely LA at night, and the quality of its acting that pulls it through its slower moments. Building to a mesmerising final half hour, Nightcrawler works both as a snapshot of life in a post-recession, gossip-hungry world, and a study of the kind character who could thrive in such a brutal environment.
Nightcrawler is out in UK cinemas on the 31st October.
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