Take the gruesome, action-satire of Paul Verhoeven, the allure of the city after dark of Michael Mann, the subject matter and 70s adult drama sensibility of NETWORK, and the disturbing, maladjusted protagonists of Scorsese, and you are only beginning to get an idea of the cinematic DNA of NIGHTCRAWLER. This isn’t to say it is derivative. On the contrary, it may be the most original movie since DRIVE. NIGHTCRAWLER is the kind of film you would never have guessed needed to exist, and yet ultimately seems iconic and indispensable.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an earnest, driven creep who is salvaging nefariously obtained scrap metal for cash. But when he stops to check out an accident on the freeway, he has a life-changing encounter with Joe Loder (BIll Paxton), a freelance “nightcrawler” who obtains footage of all manner of bloody happenings to sell to local news outlets. After catching the bug, Lou acquires his own gear, hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), and starts racing around town digitally ogling the various tragedies that fuel nightly news broadcasts. Before long he starts selling his footage to local news producer Nina (Rene Russo), who is desperate to get her broadcast out of last place.
Lou is not a normal guy. He’s ambitious, hard-working, and relentlessly dedicated to self-improvement. But he seems to live his life by platitudes he’s read on the internet, and is more than a little sociopathic. His complete disregard for laws and social norms make him a voyeuristic superman, and a fascinating character. He can go places physically, ethically, and sociologically that we’d never dream, but are hard-wired to gawk at.
Lou quickly learns that “if it bleeds it leads,” and the best-selling footage is violent crime, preferably by hispanic or black men, bleeding into wealthy or middle-class neighborhoods. Local news broadcasts dispense with international and national news in seconds, but spend the bulk of their time on local accidents and violence.
Jake Gyllenhaal is outstanding in the role. I don’t know what combination of weight loss and makeup was employed, but his face looks sunken and gaunt. Instead of a leading man, he looks like an intense, driven weirdo. And he summons the perfect combination of overwhelming ambition, general mania, and alarming strangeness to disappear into the character.
NIGHTCRAWLER is a fascinating character study and engaging drama, but it is in service of being an indictment of the local news industry. Its most effective tool in achieving this is its deadpan streak of dark humor. The characters are serious, and what they are doing is believable in context, but utterly absurd in a broad human sense. The only reason local news ever achieves fleeting moments of watchability is because you have no idea how the sausage is made. It is primal fears amplified and repackaged as indispensable truth. With the God’s eye view of NIGHTCRAWLER it seems utterly ridiculous.
In this era of blockbusters built on toy properties, market-researched romantic comedies, sequels, and young adult book adaptations, the overwhelming majority of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking seems pre-sold and carefully crafted to appeal to this or that audience. NIGHTCRAWLER is a refreshing throwback to the 70s era of engaging adult films that combine drama, good acting, and social commentary. It was my favorite thing that I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival this year.