Nightcrawler Dir. Dan Gilroy

[Open Road Films; 2014]

Styles: thriller, black comedy
Others: The Driver, Taxi Driver, Drive, Collateral, Network, To Live and Die in LA, 15 Minutes, Ace in the Hole

When my alt-weekly polls its readers for the best local band, the consistent winner is a 90s cover band called White Ford Bronco. They play songs that drunks can sing along to easily, and their namesake is a reference to the most notorious local news footage ever recorded. OJ Simpson led LAPD on a chase in a Bronco before he was arrested, and the ongoing cultural fascination with the fiasco is due in no small part to the corresponding breaking news. On one hand, the fascination is utterly human, but it’s also systemic of a culture that values shock over substance. Nightcrawler, the new absorbing thriller by Dan Gilroy, takes the appeal of rubbernecking and distills it into a pitch-black character study.

Making his directorial debut after working on the screenplays as diverse as The Fall and the The Bourne Legacy, Gilroy’s economical writing is an inexorable transition from desperation to madness. The entire movie is from the perspective of Louis Bloom, a bottom-feeder of a thief who joins the freelance journalism business after he accidentally witnesses the aftermath of a car crash. Bloom is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, whose recent career has been exciting precisely because he chooses dark, character-driven genre films over big budget epics. He plays Louis like a cross between Travis Bickle and Community’s Abet; he is a sharp, disturbed man who uses his amorality to disarm anyone who gets in his way.

He develops a professional relationship with Nina (Rene Russo), a desperate TV producer who sees potential after Louis delivers footage of a gaping neck wound. The money is no good, yet Louis gets a perverse thrill when he sees his work on the morning news, as if the footage forces greater-LA to temporarily share his twisted worldview. Soon he hires Rick (Riz Ahmed), an eager homeless kid, as an “intern,” and the money starts coming in. Louis grows increasingly brazen, distorting death and crime so it looks more cinematic, until a rival cameraman (Bill Paxton) steals his thunder. Out of anger and desperation, Louis hinders a police investigation just so he can have the exclusive.

Gyllenhaal is in every scene of Nightcrawler, and he never waivers in his commitment to such a creepy role. Louis speaks quickly and deliberately, as if he learned business platitudes through an online course and never had any human interaction (Gilroy wisely denies Louis any family or friends). He has only two evenly matched conversations in the movie, and they’re both negotiations. As he goes back and forth with Nina and Rick, respectively, Louis demonstrates a thorough understanding of dark human impulses. He holds his ground with a plastered-on smile and black, serpentine eyes, ready to strike on a fair dollar figure. Gilroy plays the scene like a dark comedy — Russo and Ahmen hold their own — and we laugh because Louis’s sharp negotiation make perfect sense, although we are not prepared for them. Louis is a master of control, except in a moment of unhinged rage when he finally looks into the mirror. Gyllenhaal plays the scenes selflessly, without any hint he’s in on the joke, so the shock of his bulging eyes are a preview of the twists that follow.

Nightcrawler is a genre film, one that revels in black comedy, yet it transcends its ambition with a commitment to tone and suspense. Gilroy takes his time building the tension — unlike many other thrillers, there’s no flashy introductory sequence — so the climax is involving because it is part surprise, part inevitability. It ends with a car chase, although the stakes are actually interesting since Louis and Rick are observers, not participants. In a sneaky way, Louis’s naked obsession is a metaphor for the audience: he cannot lose his subject for fear of missing the proverbial money shot, and we share his sick appetite. To his credit, Gilroy leaves little time to dwell on such subtext because he films action breathlessly, and with responsible cuts so that we understand how Louis’s car fits into the chase.

From The Driver through Collateral and, yes, also Drive, filmmakers have had a fascination with Los Angeles at night. Absent any traffic or sunlight, the city looks and feels like an abandoned horror movie, with forgotten architecture and pools of despairing light. The evolution of cinematography in Nightcrawler reflects Louis’s technical prowess: it begins with grainy digital film, then transitions into slick, crisp imagery (this is especially true when we see Louis’s improved footage). But for all its technical achievements, the film’s secret weapon is the score by James Newton Howard. Howard, who has worked on big-budget Hollywood franchises like The Hunger Games, combines retro synths with cloying strings and themes that are ominous, repetitive. At one moment, the music dares the audience to care about Louis, and in another the music severs any sense of sympathy. Howard may compose for mainstream blockbusters, but given his success here, I hope he slums it more often (this work must be more fun for him, anyway).

With an obsession over the local news and Louis’s low-tech climb up the professional ladder, it’s tempting to see Nightcrawler as a dated film. Sure, there are references to FTP drives and Louis knows how to use a laptop, yet Gilroy’s themes are more like a reaction to the White Ford Bronco era, not a tech-savvy media landscape where a hashtag starts a cultural conservation (for better or worse). Still, there is something undeniably timeless about Louis’s footage and Nina’s willingness to drag the news into the journalistic gutter. Their misanthropy serves a base need that’s unmoored by technology, and it’s undeniably human fun to indulge in it. Nightcrawler does not invite us to point at Louis and condemn him. Instead, it forces us to applaud Louis’s efforts, even as we fight off the nausea.

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