There isn’t much I can say against Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy’s debut film that has swept most of the moviegoing public since it came out. I wouldn’t hesitate to call it one of the bigger sleeper hits of this waning year – this movie and Whiplash for certain. It’s just that there isn’t much of anything special for it either.
Nightcrawler is a sharply written script that happens to adopt a point of view about film that most movies have already adopted time and time again – from Funny Games to Shadow of the Vampire and others that I am right now a bit too tired to dig into my skull to pick. The outright indictment of an audience as willing voyeurs to unsavory material. I mean, there’s certainly that whole attempt at biting satirical take on local journalism – but the hairs are semi-split on what the characters are doing. It’s sensationalism, but it’s very hard to identify Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) or Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) as journalists and the film doesn’t linger on what stories the two of them capture so much as the means to which they receive the story. To put it bluntly, the stories are arbitrary. It could have easily been an arson as it could be a murder and the movie’s message and attitude would have seldom changed. That’s how much it’s themes and messages don’t matter as much.
This isn’t a dig against the script so much, though. Gilroy’s work as a writer is certainly well-constructed and the movie never feels slogged down even when building up Bloom’s blooming career as a “nightcrawler” (see what I did there?), a man who films incidents like car wrecks or murders in the localized area and sells the new footage to local news stations. After perpetrating various small-time crook errands to earn some small-time crook cash, Bloom finds himself aiming for the big leagues with this self-hiring opportunity and taking lapses of several ethical dilemmas without hesitation because he knows he’s getting paid in the end and the people he sells it to will pay him because they flat out explain that violence and sex is what sells ratings. It’s a pretty direct “blame the people watching scenario” since Bloom has absolutely no problem with himself. The closest thing the movie gets to a conflict is actually only present within the latter half of the film – a very much exterior conflict between Bloom and other characters, no moralistic questioning of self, no character arc, nothing (and that’s just fine by me, baby).
In fact, my major gripe is instead just how quickly (and semi-unrealistically) the finale of that conflict gets wrapped up too quickly. But again, prior to that, there is nothing we see that we don’t really need to get (even when we still have the characters several times repeating “oh yeah, you’re crazy” to Bloom). It’s all just an uphill roll for a character we’re sort of astonished has accomplished and gotten as far as he had by the end of the film.
Gyllenhaal himself is at his career-best yet. He draws in the manic energy of the film, from his wide-eyed fixed-smirk face that calls upon the creepy pleasantries of Crispin Glover and delivers his lines with a rapid-paced Howard-Hawks-from-Hell enunciation, precise and controlled. He doesn’t speak with much enthusiasm (I can’t recall any scene where he does much more than just give a little cheer to himself), since his facial features do that well enough for him and he doesn’t give himself prone to any explosions really throughout the movie save for one. I think that is what is most fascinating about Lou Bloom as a character. It’s very easy for such a blatantly sociopathic character (to my dismay the movie feels obligated to outright spell out his sociopathy several times through) to play around so much with being batshit crazy that the reservation we don’t expect from an actor like Gyllenhaal who has hardly got a chance prior to take such psychological deviance by the reins (arguably Donnie Darko gave him that chance but Gyllenhaal is one of the things I didn’t like about Donnie Darko, which I love) is not just impressive its transfixing. We have our eyes stuck on him to wait for him to do something crazy.
He does a hell of a lot of dirty and even one scene of creepy, but he doesn’t do crazy, he says it. He speaks it. The thoughts he projects to characters in the room, the philosophy and tactics he takes are just as batshit crazy as jumping on a sofa and proclaiming he loves Katie Holmes and a hell of a lot more threatening than holding a loaded gun to the head of any of the people he wants to control.
Of course, now the problem with the review is that it is delving too deeply into something that just disappointingly isn’t the centerpiece of the film. It’s not a character study at all. Everybody is just way too static for that, nobody leaves the film learning anything. Which sucks, given how much potential Gyllenhaal gives as the center of the film, and the supporting actors like Russo, Paxton, and especially Riz Ahmed as a poor naive assistant desperate like Lou without being as morally dismissive, all try to keep up with Gyllenhaal but this is the Lou Bloom power hour and the movie only intends to have them as people affected by Bloom – victims the way that a slasher film demands victims – rather than as fully-fleshed out, lived-in people.
Dan Gilroy’s writing is certainly a promising debut, in spite its faults. His direction, however, isn’t as much. He’s pretty much just translated every single moment we can imagine as it was written on the page, rather than giving the story a sort of pop that it certainly couldn’t have as a trashy crime novel. There’s one well-choreographed, shot, and edited (a high-speed high-octane dance-like mentality captured very fluidly by John Gilroy, Dan’s twin brother) moment of a car chase and definite moments of well-paced out tension, so Dan is not a total wash, but he doesn’t quite find an ability to inject any tone into a scene. I’m sure as his career, which is certain to grow out of the success of Nightcrawler and his relation to Tony Gilroy, continues, we may see his language develop through film.
Other than that, the true flavor of the film comes from veteran cinematographer Robert Elswit, who takes to the Los Angeles nights with a literally gritty cinema verite feel. There’s a whole lotta film grain on the movie and this is one of the few times that I would actually count that as a real plus to connecting an audience on a movie about guys running around cameras trying to point them at ruined lives. I’m sure it would have made Elswit’s life easier to approach this movie digitally, but if you know anything about Elswit – you wouldn’t ask him of that. Don’t have much to say about the droning score of James Newton Howard, save that it is really uncharacteristic of him in a way, kind of useless beyond just making Los Angeles feel a little bit more industrial than people who are solely familiar with Hollywood would expect, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Gilroy just told Howard to do what he did with Christopher Nolan.
It’s definitely a worthy watch for a late-night bit of entertainment, but Nightcrawler barely accomplishes more than its pulpish feel with nothing to say and nothing to show beyond a few hours into the mind of how Bloom is as a person. And well, that’s all fun and well, but it’s not going to buy me for a second viewing. There’s nothing deeper to look for. There’s nothing to point a camera flash and mic at.