In Ray Bradbury’s excellent short story “The Crowd,” the survivor of a car crash begins to suspect that every accident in his city is being attended by the same rapidly forming mass of sinister onlookers. In order for that story to fly in 1943 it had to have a supernatural element; by 2014 the idea that you might see the same people turning up at every other crack-up is a given. They’re the guys carrying the cameras, and they’re there to put you and your dangling guts and all your shock and misery on the evening news.
Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is one of those guys. Or rather, he fashions himself into one after accidentally discovering his calling, “a flaming asshole of a job” to which he feels perfectly suited, mainly because he’s a baby-faced sociopath who likes to watch with those eyes like giant, cold marbles. The missing link between Videodrome and Crash, Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, chronicles Lou’s rise to the top of his profession by sinking about as low as a person can with regards to empathy. He learns to monetize carnage and suffering based on the race and class of the victims, and to make bigger and bigger bucks by taking bigger and bigger risks to get the goriest images possible.
As a character study, Nightcrawler works quite well. We watch as Lou learns the hustle, takes on an easily exploited and otherwise unemployable sidekick, and attempts to get all his ducks in a row by coercing or, more to the point, blackmailing his most frequent, attractive and ruthless client, trash-news director Nina (Rene Russo) into a faux-romance. (Fauxmance?) “I also like the way you smell,” he reassures her over dinner at a kitsch Mexican joint; he’s about as persuasive in his wooing as Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, but he’s got her over a barrel and, since she’s heartless too, she almost admires it. Lou is a cypher you can’t take your eyes off of, like Lawrence Tierney in Dillinger or Born to Kill. I don’t think there are many A-list handsome actors who could pull this off, but Gyllenhaal, in films like Zodiac and Prisoners, has proven himself capable of embracing darker roles and remaining compelling while doing nothing at all to ingratiate himself.
Where Nightcrawler becomes a bit of a letdown is in its confusion of tones. With its totally overblown score and intermittently slapdash direction it stumbles between the lurid grime of genuine noir and the cheaper, more humdrum thrills of large-writ satire. It takes the easy route to black comedy, firing pot-shots at a very familiar target—the total sensationalization of so-called news—when it might have delved into murkier psychological terrain while making the same sociological points more subtly. Still, check it out. You may need to shower afterwards.