When you first see Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the sociopathic protagonist of Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (Gilroy both wrote and directed the film), you are struck by his haggard, gaunt, sunken-eyes appearance, as if his body has long fled, leaving behind only a husk of a man.
And in many ways that’s true, with his eyes, which are animated only when he is in the company of someone he thinks can advance his agenda, soulless and ever-calculating, and his smile, such as it is, sitting oddly asked on his face, as if it’s been slapped on in a hurry by someone who’s not quite sure how it should fit.
You get the feeling reasonably quickly that Louis, in fact, doesn’t have any real idea how any of the things we taken as the normal parts of human interaction such as empathy for others or warm back-and-forth conversation should fit into his day to day exchanges with those he encounters; it’s as if he’s read a textbook, and as he admits early on in the movie, he is a voracious consumer and applied of information of all kinds, on social norms and coldly and logically applied them without any real consideration for the humanity that sits behind them and gives them real meaning and life.
It’s all appearance and no human substance with Louis who lives alone and speaks with the monotony of an encyclopaedia sprung clumsily to life, barely scraping by, desperate to make something of himself, and soak in the attention and recognition this will bring him – the one thing he isn’t missing is a very needy, almost childlike, ego – if only he can find the vocation that will deliver that to him.
He finds it one night driving home after stealing and selling scarp metal to a dealer, when he sees a car accident on the side of the road, and stopping to check it out, one suspects out of morbid curiosity only since he possesses no sense of concern for anyone but himself, notices two men filming the entire incident from up close, with little to no consideration for the medics, police, or victim involved.
They are “nightcrawlers”, bottom-feeding news footage gatherers who spent the “vampire hours” scurrying from one end of Los Angeles to another, filming plane crashes, car accidents, violent car jackings – anything that will provide voyeuristic visuals for the morning news shows, all of which are locked in a battle for ratings supremacy and the eyeballs of an increasingly tabloid-addicted viewing public.
Acquiring a camcorder and a basic police scanner, again by taking advantage of someone else, his modus operandi in life, he sets out in his old model hatchback to mimic the nightcrawlers he saw the night before.
And that’s the dynamic you notice with Louis over and over again – he is a human mocking bird, mimicking everyone around him, the lessons learned and information acquired applied like some sort of awkward mask over his existing life, its only usefulness the extent to which it can advance his grossly narcissistic interests.
A quick learner since his passion for learning and employing that knowledge is one of the few genuine things about him, he soon begins to acquire valuable footage, selling it to a kindred soul of sorts, the equally as ambitious news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) at a local TV station, who describes the newscast she orchestrates as akin to a “woman running down the street screaming with her throat cut”.
Theirs is a fraught relationship – he is not averse to threatening, blackmailing or manipulating her to get what he wants, always with that creepy smile fixed oddly in smile; she cares little for him as a person, her only concern whether he can supply the visuals she needs to bring viewers to her morning news show – hanging together only by a mutual need to make it in life, no matter what the cost.
The key difference with Nina is that she at least has some remnants of humanity intact; precious little of course, her cold disregard for the people caught in the stories she fashions – not reports; she cares little for the truth but rather the angle she can bring to the footage Louis supplies – palpably obvious to those she works with, who blanch at her willingness to put anything on screen if she thinks it will rate.
The only key member of this cabal of news network horrors with any conscience is Rick (Riz Ahmed), the poorly-paid and treated “intern” that Louis takes on just one day into his new career – he has delusions of grandeur big enough to hang his considerable lust for success and recognition on, and then some – who acts as the Jiminy Cricket of Louis’s coldly self-absorbed world.
He is routinely ignored of course just as Jiminy was by Pinocchio, his words of caution, entreaties to observe the rule of law and calls to decent human propriety brushed aside by Louis, who bereft of any real humanity himself, sees no value in anything other than doing what needs to be done to build what he refers to, in rather self-conscious terms to anyone but him, as his “professional news gathering organisation.”
He quickly moves from observing and filming the traumatic incidents that are his bread and butter to entering and tampering them before resorting in scenes shocking and invasive to anyone with a beating heart or soul, neither of which Louis seems to possess, to essentially creating them, becoming both the monstrous architect and chronicler of the news he creates.
A dark satire on the lengths that news organisations will go to chase the ratings they need to attract the advertising that fuels them, and on the underbelly of the American Dream which spruiks getting ahead as a virtue worthy of endless veneration while staying silent on the desperate means usually needed to make it happen, Nightcrawler is deeply disturbing, unsettling drama that pulls back the curtain on our modern messy digital media age.
Thanks to cinematographer Robert Elswit the bright lights of Los Angeles at night vividly bring to life the adrenaline-fueled hamster-wheel freneticism of Louis and his fellow nightcrawlers, lending this “asshole of a job” – a colourful description supplied by the man who inspires Louis to take up his amoral new calling, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) – the glamour and addictiveness that masks the depravity barely concealed within.
What is probably most disturbing about this well-executed film is the way it brings forth the argument that we are all complicit in fuelling the industry that Louis takes to with such coldhearted gusto.
We are the ones watching the news, clicking on the headlines, lapping up the lurid copy; we may not possess the sociopathic bleak self-interest of Louis but we are certainly enabling him, and those who aid and abet him like Nina, and while Nightcrawler doesn’t focus all its efforts on screaming out “J’accuse” at us, it does imply that people like Louis wouldn’t exist without the viewers devoting their time and energy, like Roman citizens lapping up the “bread and circuses” of old, to the increasingly lurid, infotainment news broadcasts filling our screens.
We may thankfully not be Louis but he is in part our creation and it’s hard to tell whether it’s that realisation or Louis’s staggeringly amoral actions that are the most unsettling part of this supremely well told drama.