I don’t know if you watched the late local news tonight (I didn’t, I was at the movies — can you guess what I was seeing?), but odds are good that if you did, there was a psychopath in front of the camera waving a gun or a knife around, particularly if you live in a major urban area like New York or Los Angeles. Guys like that seem to be a dime a dozen these days, and sometimes they even wear uniforms and badges.
Well, writer/director Dan Gilroy seems to have hit on a nifty little twist to that scenario for his new(-ish) film, Nightcrawler — what if you put the psychopath behind the camera?
Louis Bloom (played with considerable relish by Jake Gyllenhaal) is our high-tech Travis Bickle, a guy with little formal education but a lot of drive who’s landed on hard times in our supposedly “recovering” economy and decides to makes lemons from lemonade by parlaying his skills as a small-time thief into a career as a freelance news videographer. By his own admission — despite the fact that he sounds like a living, breathing “Intro to Business 101” textbook and comes off as purely cynical and calculating — he understands people just fine, he just doesn’t like them very much, and every situation and individual he encounters is quickly filtered through the prism of the master plan he has to make it to the top of his newly-chosen profession. He needs other people, sure, but never on a permanent basis and the depths to which he’s willing to sink in order to “get the story” are truly breathtaking to behold. The word “ethics” clearly isn’t part of his vocabulary, and if the line between right and wrong doesn’t intimidate him, you can bet that the line between legal and illegal scares him even less. He’s a man on a mission, and you don’t want to stand in his way.
It’s pretty clear that Louis is aiming for much bigger things than we’d even realized when he blows off a big-time offer to join a veteran camera crew led by his chief rival (played by Bill Paxton) and opts instead to take over the market lock, stock , and barrel by the most ruthless and underhanded means possible — and he’s got an only semi-willing accomplice in his long-range schemes in the form of Nina Romina (Rene Russo, in full-on MILF mode), news director of TV station 6 in L.A., who is the first to give Louis his “big break” but quickly becomes dependent upon him for the sensationalistic footage she loves to lead with every night. Louis wants more than just a business relationship with his benefactor, though, and, ever the blunt negotiator, it’s implied that he succeeds in managing to trade his wares for sexual favors, as well. Anything for ratings, I guess.
It’s obvious that Gilroy is tackling a number of themes with his stylish and intelligent thriller here — the victory of tabloid-style “journalism” over the real thing, the depravity that economic desperation can cause — but by and large Nightcralwer works best as a character study of Louis Bloom himself, and the whole movie rides on Gyllenhaal’s shoulders. To say that he delivers is an understatement of criminal proportions, as he’s positively electric and delivers one of the most maniacally intense and darkly charismatic performances I’ve seen in a major studio flick in some time. There’s plenty of Oscar talk swirling around his work here, as well there should be : this is career-defining stuff here.
The film also works as a metaphor for “how to get ahead in business,” and can be seen — should you choose to do so — as a rather damning indictment of the sort of “cream” that rises to the top under capitalism : somebody with no morals, no conscience, and driven solely by empty ambition. Viewed through that lens, it’s fair to say that Nightcrawler is so damn good it’s scary.