"What if my problem isn't that I don't understand people, but that I don't like them?"
With Nightcrawler, first-time director Dan Gilroy offers up one of 2014's best filmgoing experiences. It's one of the year's best thrillers, but it's also one of the year's funniest, most trenchant satires. It's one of the best-looking films you'll see in 2014, one of the best-acted, one of the best-scripted, and -- above all else -- it is one of the most timely, subversive critiques of the modern media landscape I've seen in years. It calls to mind Network, Natural Born Killers, The King of Comedy, and -- to use a more recent example -- Gone Girl (which Nightcrawler might one day join for a fantastic double-feature in your living room). High praise, I know. But when I say Nightcrawler is "one of 2014's best", I mean it, full-stop. From top to bottom, this thing hits like a freight train.
In one of the year's best, most ferocious performances, Jake Gyllenhaal has never been better than he is as the monstrous Lou Bloom. We first meet Lou outside an industrial construction zone, where he's stripping wire and metal and whatever else he can scrounge up to sell under-the-table to another construction crew across town. When he's interrupted by the site's security guard, he beats the dude unconscious and steals his watch. Three minutes into Nightcrawler, and we've already got a pretty good handle on what kind of anti-hero we'll be following around for the next two hours.
But Lou Bloom is so much more than the petty criminal we initially take him for. As Lou likes to tell people, he's a quick learner, a hard worker, a real go-getter. He might also be described as something of a people pleaser, though it wouldn't be in the traditional sense of the term. See, Lou Bloom is an out-and-out sociopath, and when he does his best to keep his superiors happy, it has nothing to do with pride in a job well done or the enjoyment that comes with pleasing others: it's all just cold, hard ambition.
And so, when Lou comes across a fiery car crash one night and sees a scuzzy dude named Joe (Bill Paxton, nailing it) filming the wreckage, his first thought is: how can I get in on this action? Lou learns that Joe's a "nightcrawler", a bottom-dwelling scumbag who spends his nights listening to police scanners for the latest local tragedies, all of which will be captured on video and sold to the highest-bidding local news affiliate. The businesses Lou deals with as a petty criminal have the good sense not to hire him, but what's to stop him from going into business for himself like Joe? In no time at all, Lou's tooling around the city at night with a police scanner in one hand and a video camera in the other, a would-be self-made man looking for the bloodiest crime scenes Los Angeles can conjure.
This brings him into contact with Channel 6's station boss, Nina (Rene Russo), who immediately buys what Lou's selling. While handing him his first check, she makes it clear: the uglier the footage, the more the network will pay ("Think of our nightly newscast as a screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut"). This first bit of success will drive Lou to do all manner of unspeakable, immoral, and indefensible things in pursuit of his dream: Lou wants to be "the guy who owns the network that owns the camera that gets the footage".
To say anything more about where this all leads would be criminal, so we'll leave it at that. Be aware, however, that Nightcrawler doesn't necessarily end up where you'd expect it to; thirty minutes into the film, I thought I had a pretty good idea where things were headed, and-- much to my delight-- I couldn't have been further off base. This is a clever, confident, ballsy film, and Gilroy isn't afraid to take things to their logical (and deeply troubling) conclusion. Rest assured, you will leave satisfied.
There's a lot to unpack in terms of what Nightcrawler has to say about the state of things, particularly as they pertain to the media, and -- like David Fincher did in this month's Gone Girl -- Gilroy makes his point via the generous application of pitch-black humor. This is satire of the first order, so confident and dry in its execution that it may well go right over casual moviegoers' heads. Everyone in the news cycle -- from the half-wit viewers tuning in for their grief-porn nightcap all the way up to the network heads that push sensationalism straight into the realm of hysteria -- gets savaged here. And while it's often very funny, it's also really unnerving: nothing in Nightcrawler will strain your sense of disbelief. It is, in fact, all too easy to imagine a thousand Lou Blooms working all over the country right this very minute, a lot of them probably collecting paychecks from TMZ. Gilroy's disgust is palpable here, and he's channeled it into something stunning.
Nightcrawler's a stunner on the technical side, as well. The film was shot by the great Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Punch-Drunk Love), and his work here ranks among his very best. The Los Angeles of Nightcrawler is sexy, deadly, glowing and ominous; this is almost certainly the best L.A. has looked on screen since 2004's Collateral. The score, from James Newton Howard--who, incidentally, also provided the score for that Michael Mann film-- is evocative and appropriately unsettling (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross would've had a field day with this thing). John Gilroy's editing is razor-sharp, and particularly effective in two of the year's most intense scenes: a disastrous encounter at a shitty Chinese restaurant, and a resulting car chase that left me holding my breath each time I watched the film.
I could crank out another 1,000 words about how great Nightcrawler is, but this is one of those cases where a lot of the discussions I'd really like to have about the film are best left for a point in the not-too-distant future, once everyone's had a chance to see and digest it. My suggestion? See it twice: once to absorb the various twists and turns of the plot, and another in order to savor the technical stuff-- the editing, the film's many clever visual nods (one of the first images is of an observatory looming over the L.A. skyline), the jaw-dropping intensity of Gyllenhaal's performance, the high-wire tonal balancing act Gilroy pulls off in scene after scene. Once you've done that, we can really dig into the (diseased) meat of this thing. I can't wait.