Lou Bloom is a very ambitious man.
Normally when someone says the phrase, “I’ll never ask you to do something that I wouldn’t do myself,” it’s a show of support. They’re letting you know that they have your back, and that they’ll never make an unreasonable request that they, themselves, would be unwilling to do. But when Bloom says it, it’s cause for concern.
Lou Bloom is a very dangerous man.
As played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who completely disappears in the role, there is literally nothing Bloom wouldn’t do to get ahead in life. Nothing. As the film begins, we meet the character as he does what he does: Creating opportunities. He’s a man with seemingly little in the way of skills, training, or education, so he invents ways of making himself a commodity. If that means stealing something that he can sell to someone that needs it, so be it. We witness a failed, forced “job interview” between Bloom and a construction yard foreman that wasn’t hiring to begin with, and it’s in this interaction that we get our first glimpse of the machinations inside Bloom’s mind. Not only does he not take “No” for an answer, but he seemingly runs down a checklist of key phrases that he’s memorized in order to convey his value.
The problem is, Lou has little value.
On his way home that night, he witnesses a crash on the side of the freeway. He pulls over, with his bug-eyes glued to the scene, drawn like a moth to the flame. Does he want to help? Does he just like to watch? We don’t get a chance to figure out why he pulled over for a closer look because, all of a sudden, Bloom’s next opportunity presents itself to him. A van pulls over near him and two cameramen frantically scramble out of it. He hears them mutter something about “being first” as they run to the wreckage to film what’s happening between the victim and the police who are attempting to save their life. Bloom takes in how the two men circle the car, shooting from two cinematic angles, weaving a visual tapestry out of someone’s suffering.
As they make their way back to the van, Bloom shuffles over to the lead cameraman, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), and manages a few prying questions. He discovers that the men are independent contractors, not beholden to a particular news station. Their sole purpose is to sit around waiting for misfortune to happen, while listening to a police radio frequency, and then hoping to be the first to get good footage of what happened. They then sell the footage to the highest bidder. “If it bleeds, it leads,” Loder says before racing off to the next emergency to come over the police radio. They race off, Bloom stands there. Calmly. Mechanically. He isn’t at all concerned about the exploitative nature of the job, getting close-ups of people fighting for their lives, or surviving an ordeal. Bloom has no such room in his brain for such ethical quandaries.
All he sees is an opportunity.
As directed by Dan Gilroy, who also wrote the film, Nightcrawler shares that same lack of space for ethical quandaries as its protagonist. It merely presents you with a series of escalating events involving Bloom that show the character progressing up the ranks as a freelance cameraman out there, trying to ramp up his own value. The film, wisely, doesn’t tell you how to feel about what you’re witnessing. It’s all a matter of your personal line. As Bloom continues to cross moral lines, which one will be the one where you feel like you’re witnessing something truly heinous?
Is it when he moves around some pictures on the fridge of a victim in order to add more drama to a shot? Is it when he literally manipulates a crime scene? Is it when he creates one? Is it when we see the utter depths he’s willing to plunder in order to be number one? Or, are you so cynical that none of that phases you and you’re with “our hero” the whole way through?
Gilroy populates the story with nothing but desperate people. All of the film’s main characters are in a desperate state. There’s Loder, who all ready had enough on his plate in terms of competition without Bloom and his obsessive work ethic suddenly springing onto the scene. There’s Rene Russo’s Nina Romina, the station manager on the graveyard shift of a fledgling local network. There’s also Rick (Riz Ahmed), the homeless young man that Bloom hires as an assistant for $30 a night. Whether it be to keep their job, to stave off competition, or just to afford a roof over their head, Bloom and the supporting players of the story are all clawing and scratching for survival. But Bloom may be just the kind of opportunist to come out of everything on top.
Gyllenhaal plays the character with such conviction, and such wide-eyed naivetÃ©, that it’s easy to pull for him at first. In those big lemur eyes, and hidden behind that people-pleasing grin, you can tell that he means no harm. He’s not thinking about the ramifications of his actions. In the early portions of the film, he’s not intentionally trying to harm anyone. Everything is just a means to an end. There is no malice. His singleminded, relentless focus can make this morally bankrupt man seem almost admirable.
It’s the American dream! A man who came up from nothing, who pulled himself by his boot straps, found his niche in the world, and made a success of himself.
But make no mistake about it. This is a dark movie. Literally and figuratively. Much of it takes place at night on the side streets of Los Angeles. Meanwhile it’s themes of “anything goes” in the name of survival are downright chilling as we see all of the characters do whatever they can for self-preservation.
The film is riveting. Anchored by Gyllenhaal’s completely committed performance,and first-time feature director Gilroy’s surprisingly sure hand, the film is a true thriller.
If I have one complaint, it’s in the area of scoring. The film’s score, composed by James Newton Howard, is at its best when it embraces the sinister underpinnings of the world it’s exploring. Yet there are a couple of moments where it veers off into a kind of unabashed sentimentality that seems out of place here. An example of this is during a scene where Bloom is taken on a tour of the news station, the set, and he gets to meet the anchors and producers that put it all together. The score here has such an “Aw, shucks” feel that it almost turns the scene into “Oh, how nice. They let Forrest Gump onto the set. Look how starstruck and excited he is. He’s so lovable!” That endearing softness doesn’t mesh with the story being told.
I would’ve liked to have heard what Trent Reznor- someone with a more contemporary sound, who can toy with dark, moody themes- might have done with this movie.
Nightcrawler is a very original work, and it makes me excited about Dan Gilroy’s future as a writer-director. He’s able to build a kind of tension that led to several fits of uncomfortable laughter in the theater where I saw it. Bloom’s unrelenting drive, and the way he’s able to coldly go after each rung on the ladder he’s on, leads to several encounters throughout the film that have stuck with me until now- a week later. Mixed in with all of this taut entertainment is some social commentary about the times where we live in now.
In a dog eat dog world, is the only way to the top throwing your neighbor into a meat grinder? How many of us willfully participate in the trafficking of other people’s misery?
Go see Nightcrawler.