A thick film of sleaze coats every frame of “Nightcrawler,” a movie that takes a hard look at media culture and provides Jake Gyllenhaal a terrific opportunity to creep us all out.
The movie, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, is occasionally too on the nose; a little subtlety might have improved things a little. But anchored by Gyllenhaal and driven by an insatiable audience’s need for blood, guts and gore coupled with willing media accomplices perfectly happy to call that “news,” the film still makes a big impact.
Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a low-level thief who prowls after-hours LA, stealing copper wire and manholes and whatever else he can sell to unscrupulous buyers. But he’s a born salesman, with a weird way of speaking: all genuine emotion and inflection are removed, replaced by a manufactured enthusiasm. He sounds like a walking, talking, self-promotional robot.
One night he happens upon a car wreck on a freeway. Cops and EMTs are there, but so is Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), hoisting a camera. Why? Loder explains: He and his crew listen to the police scanner, show up at bloody scenes, shoot video and sell it to the highest local-news bidder for their morning shows.
And Lou has found his calling.
Lacking anything resembling a moral compass, Lou proves adept at finding mayhem and has a pretty good eye. He marches his first footage, wholly by accident, into the lowest-rated station in LA, where Nina (Rene Russo), desperate for better ratings, describes the ultimate footage: “A screaming woman running down the street with her throat slit.”
But not just any woman. A white woman in a rich neighborhood means ratings nirvana.
Against Loder’s advice, Lou works exclusively with Nina. The two develop a twisted relationship based on mutual, pathetic need. She is desperate for ratings. He is desperate for something approaching human companionship, though he doesn’t really seem capable of it.
Gilroy’s film is an effective takedown, but sometimes he overdoes it. Loder’s original advice — “If it bleeds, it leads” — is age-old and sounds cliched, because it is.
The film is best when the ball is in Gyllenhaal’s hands, so to speak. He’s nervous, jittery, but beginning to enjoy his newfound status, no matter how ill-gotten. He makes increasingly disturbing demands of Nina; Russo is excellent at displaying the struggle of a woman getting older in a business that won’t stand for it. This, combined with her thirst for ratings (and thus, some semblance of job security), could make her a sad figure, almost tragic.
But sympathy goes out the window when she gets ahold of footage almost literally dripping blood. The bottom line trumps all.
It’s a cynical film, to be sure. But Gyllenhaal makes it compelling, in a twisted kind of way. This is a masterful performance, intense and scary. The movie is not quite his equal, but it’s still a strong statement about media and our consumption of it — and it’s not a flattering one.
Rating: R for violence including graphic images and for language.
Running time: 117 minutes