Under the florescent glow of a desolate, nighttime Los Angeles, Lou Bloom and his business assistant, Rick, are looking for work. Packed into a red Dodge Charger with police scanner in tow, the men are driving around, waiting for an accident – a crime scene, some dramatic entanglement of human frailty and despair that they can record (via a handheld digital camera), edit, and sell to a local TV news station to air on the morning broadcast. They get wind of a break-in taking place in a wealthier residential district, and immediately head over to get in on the action (as Lou has been advised by the station’s director, Nina, crimes in affluent, white neighborhoods sell better to viewers).
They get to the scene before the cops; Lou grabs his camera, leaves the car, approaches the house… and in so doing brings himself to the brink where “reporter” (or, if you’d rather, voyeur) and criminal begin to converge, where the one does not seem so far apart from the other. We have been catching onto this idea for some time now (the movie is called Nightcrawler, and that’s Jake Gyllenhaal up on the screen going by the name of Lou Bloom), yet here the conflict reaches its apex in unreleased violent energy. Lou is always second to arrive at such settings, after the police or even another videographer – but this time he is present to soak in the still-fresh agonies of the victims, to claim that agony as product, and to then choose how he plays his cards, or frames, to ensure the greatest personal profit.
It is hard to discuss this film without centering the discussion entirely upon Gyllenhaal; much of its strength resides in the firm acting chops put on display by its star. With each passing year, I find myself increasingly ready to say that he is the single most important actor currently working in American movies – an overstatement, certainly, but one which I feel is rooted in Gyllenhaal’s clear desire to take on challenging, unusually kinetic roles. As with his recent work in Enemy, Prisoners (both 2013), End of Watch (2012), and Source Code (2011), one sees Mr. Gyllenhaal embracing characters which demand meditation not only on the actor’s part but on the part of his audience. Here, he is present throughout the entire movie – not a single scene transpires that he is not a part of – and thus the audience is made to be complicit, or one with every move Lou makes, putting that audience in a position of familiarity with his actions, just as on a more levelheaded plane those actions should be extremely disquieting, and hard to watch.
The secret to this trick is to play the man as an impenetrable enigma, and that is precisely what Gyllenhaal does. It is so easy to marvel at Lou – he isn’t personally objectionable, really, nor is he vulnerable; he lacks the sentimentality and inarticulateness of Travis Bickle, just as he never fumbles for words or eye contact like Norman Bates. He is unperturbed, laconic – prone to smile just as he almost never blinks. The great pleasure of Nightcrawler is not only that it makes us identify with a charming, dangerous man (think of Bruno Antony from Strangers on a Train), but that it offers no moralistic recompense for his breathtaking lack of ethical boundaries. It is thrilling to see Lou bunch his long hair back in a little samurai-esc bun; grip his camera like a saber, as though he were a mobilized L.B. Jeffries (of Rear Window – his job is to photograph geopolitical conflicts, is it not?); and lithely step across that border between watcher and perpetrator of violence. It must be recognized that the camera here is a weapon for assault and abuse as much as any gun; it feeds off peril in a way that is very indigenous to our culture, yet which is often dismissed as being “necessary” or “true to life.”
All of this makes for fun contemplation, as Nightcrawler poses questions which are unique within the world of commercial American cinema: Isn’t the purpose of the camera to capture reality? Isn’t it our job to reveal, to seek and report? Isn’t it our right to see, to witness? And what do we make of the fact that satisfaction can be attained through the witnessing of such carnage? Lou never seems to be more alive than when he is viewing his recorded work; he locks into video journalist-mode when he’s actually on the crime scenes, but afterward he seems to find transcendence in the horrors he’s captured. Ostensibly, as Lou himself puts it, he gets pleasure out of doing a good job at work that suits him. But the fact that it “suits him” is so sneaky, so disturbing a concept – and it slips by without much resistance on the part of the audience. There is no denying that Lou Bloom is a great character – but the truth is, Americans have always been rather quick to associate themselves with charming psychopaths (just look at the examples provided in this essay), and that willingness by an audience to give itself over to such a character is as necessary an ingredient to its success as Gyllenhaal’s acting or writer/director Dan Gilroy’s screenplay.
This is not, however, meant to suggest that the screenwriting and direction are free of flaws; if one is to follow the trajectory of this film’s narrative, one must be willing to agree with its rather exaggerated pontification that news broadcasters are quasi-sadistic scum, just as one must choose to believe that American news stations would begin to show anything nearly as graphic as what is displayed on this fictional L.A. news channel. Yet there is that scene at the break-in, just as there are moments of conversation between Lou and Nina (played by the director’s wife, a well-cast Rene Russo) which carry the film over its conceptual impediments and towards something sublime, provocative – even if the collective work never manages to live up to those qualities.
Such moments are key to uncovering the meaning of cinema; movies are seldom more stimulating or foreboding as a medium than when they are contemplating their own idiosyncrasies – and that is exactly what goes on here. So let it be said: Nightcrawler is less successful as a directorial work or piece of plausible storytelling than it is a means of discovering and basking in the subtleties of a single character, and how that character may convey greater truths about the nature of a culture which feeds off secondhand suffering. In a time when the urge towards peril feels like a lurking specter ready to seize hold of any number of brooding, disturbed social outcasts who can get hold of an automated weapon, Nightcrawler asks us to remember our place in the wake of such peril, and to consider the possibility that our tolerance of such matters has become a little too settled, perhaps, a little too complacent.