Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

With slim pickings at the local multiplex, I decided it was finally time to check out Nightcrawler, a film that made several “best of 2014” lists.  Though I ended up tilting in favor of this freshman effort by director Dan Gilroy, at first I wasn’t sure whether to bury or praise this movie’s central conceit.  After all, do we require another reminder that networks are busy creating news where there is none?

I suppose we do.  With Fox News employing discredited shills like Karl Rove and Bill O’Reilly, and CNN providing the invaluable service of wall-to-wall celebrity funeral coverage, the 24 hour news industry balloon stands in need of a decisive pop.

With his hair slicked back and an endless supply of platitudes, Nightcrawler’s antihero Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) resembles a low-rent Gordon Gekko.  When the movie opens, Bloom is near the bottom of the LA food chain, boosting scrap metal to make ends meet.  Happening upon a highway car crash and spotting a freelance videographer hard at work, he finds inspiration and a meal ticket.

Bloom may be a novice, but he’s a quick study.  Through a combination of chutzpah and a gut instinct for technique, Bloom’s footage of carjacking and home invasion aftermaths soon becomes a coveted commodity for local news shows.

A clever montage by Gilroy and his seasoned cinematographer Robert Elswit (Michael Clayton, Magnolia) effectively spans Bloom’s rise in competence and profitability.  With his videos routinely purchased for programs helmed by news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo), he trades in his decrepit Toyota for a muscular red sports car.

Bloom, moving up in the world
Bloom, moving up in the world

In Louis Bloom, actor Jake Gyllenhaal and writer/director Dan Gilroy have created an odd, memorable character.  I recently lamented Gyllenhaal’s thespian shortcomings in Brokeback Mountain, but here he’s in top form.

With his guilt-free exploitation of human tragedy and casual discarding of allies who are no longer useful, Bloom is a loathsome screen psychopath, wielding a camera instead of a meat cleaver.  His willingness to reposition a corpse to yield a nicely framed image is only the beginning of his descent down a blood-stained slippery slope.

At the same time, Bloom lacks the charm of a Gordon Gekko or Hannibal Lecter, not to mention the surface appeal of many real-life sociopaths.  His reliance on clichés and self-help business-speak betrays his lack of formal education.  Meanwhile, his filter-free speech and callousness impede his hopes of seducing Rene Russo’s Romina.

Even if Romina doesn’t know of Bloom’s crime- and crash-scene manipulations, she is nonetheless his moral (or should I say immoral?) equal.  Despite her awareness that LA crime rates are waning, her news coverage shamelessly parrots the mantra of “urban crime creeping into the suburbs.”  Romina knows that fear and gore are the drugs that keep viewers returning for their next hit.

Louise Bloom and Nina Romina (Rene Russo), on the newsroom set
Louise Bloom and Nina Romina (Rene Russo), on the newsroom set

Gilroy’s story bops along at a suspenseful pace.  As Bloom’s risk-taking escalates, one tensely waits to see if his deceptive ways will be outed, or if he will meet a violent demise like so many of his artistic subjects.  One of Gilroy’s side stories ends predictably, but otherwise this was a narratively satisfying adventure.

Los Angeles furnishes an ideally picturesque backdrop for Bloom’s misdeeds.  Its wide boulevards, palm trees, and twisting canyons have lured directors from Hitchcock to the Coen Brothers, so who can fault Gilroy for yielding to their temptations?

Nightcrawler’s score, by prolific movie composer James Newton Howard, is a bit of a letdown, though.  The music starts promisingly with airy electric guitar complementing dark LA cityscapes.  By film’s end, however, Howard’s work has devolved into a near-parody of cheesy 80’s Top Gun or Officer and a Gentleman soundtracks.

Though diminished by these flaws, Nightcrawler overall is a solid piece of film craftsmanship and a decent challenge to the “if it bleeds, it leads” journalistic mentality.  While waiting for the winter cineplex dregs to wash away, it deserves your home viewing attention.

3.5 out of 5 stars

(Parents’ guide:  Nightcrawler earns its R rating, with graphic imagery, violence, and coarse language.  I’d recommend viewing by older teens and adults only.)

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