The best films are often a product of the age in which they were made (interesting word that, “product”).
Without the post-‘Nam disillusionment of the mid-‘70s, no Taxi Driver. Without the on-air suicide of TV news reporter Christine Chubbuck the same year, no Network. While Nightcrawler takes some cues from both of these classics, writer-director Dan Gilroy’s film is also a commentary on exploitation in the modern workplace.
This ideology of “He who exploits best wins” finds its embodiment in Louis Bloom (a gaunt, wild-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal). A night owl, petty thief, and perennial loner, Louis is looking for a job: he can recite empty platitudes with the best of them; he’s smart and, to his credit, a hard worker. Cheery and disconcertingly earnest, he’s also a manipulative sociopath, a greasy Patrick Bateman-alike who will do anything to get a foot on the corporate ladder.
When Louis come across a grizzly car crash and smug, self-proclaimed “nightcrawler” Joe (Bill Paxton), Louis sees an opportunity to turn human suffering into hard money. With a police scanner, his handheld camera, his desperate intern Rick (Riz Ahmed), and, after his first big pay check, a souped-up muscle car, Louis sets out to make his name as a freelance video journalist.
While the film takes jabs as the “If it bleeds it leads” mentality of the 24-hour news cycle – Rene Russo plays Nina, a hardened TV editor willing, albeit reluctantly, to do anything to get her hands on the goriest footage – Nightcrawler is more about the extent to which people will go to be seen as a success. Louis is a man without hobbies or interests (beyond watering his potted plant); there is nothing to him beneath the eager smile and desire to transact.
It’s not too long before being the first nightcrawler on the scene isn’t enough. What starts with a slight aesthetic readjustment to maximise dramatic impact soon leads to explosions of blood and steel. Robert Elswit’s high-contrast cinematography – the L.A. streets are marked out in glaring halogen and impenetrable shadows – brings to mind (a slightly seedier) Michael Mann.
Part character study, part thriller, part satire, Nightcrawler never quite overcomes its exploitative vibe: there’s more to be said about a culture where fear and hysteria are systematically marketed, but the film is itself too busy about getting it all on camera. Still, Gyllenhaal’s intense, unsettling performance contributes to making the film a monstrously entertaining success.