The media is sleazy. We all know this. Films like Network and To Die For have highlighted the unscrupulous methodology of the news media in a way that, if you didn’t look carefully enough, might even feel like celebration. We hate the media, but we love to hate it. The talking heads, the sensational headlines, false urgency and faux concern. The movies that bring us behind the scenes of this industry tend to be splashy, morally bankrupt, and dripping with satire.
And now, here is their 21st century cousin, Nightcrawler, to do it all over again.
In 2014, it’s almost refreshing to see a movie about journalism that doesn’t also try to include the rapidly-changing world of social media and internet news. Nightcrawler is almost old-fashioned in that way. It is explicitly about the news we watch on our TV screens, when we wake up in the morning and before we go to sleep at night. For decades now, that’s been the primary delivery method of our daily digest of current events. These days, people are more likely to fire up a search engine than turn on their TV when a major story breaks, but Nightcrawler is not about momentous events. It’s about the daily news, the evening news, the nightly news — segments that need to be filled with content whether anything happened or not. It’s no different than any other programming. The advertisers have paid for their spots, the anchors are ready and waiting, you’re on in 3, 2…
Something has to fill those gaps. Does it have to be true? Not necessarily, as long as it can be sold as true. And if it’s on the news, people tend to believe just about anything.In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom doesn’t start out wanting to be a part of the news media. All he wants is a job — any job — and, like many Americans, he’s having a hard time getting one. Lou, however, is willing to sink to much lower depths than many of his unemployed brethren; his try-hard affect and vacant stare suggest either autism or sociopathy, perhaps both. Lou repeats motivational go-getter sound bites he’s probably picked up from self-help gurus and TED talks. When he happens upon a horrific accident and witnesses Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) running onto the scene with a camera to capture the carnage, he suddenly gets the bright idea to give Loder some competition. Lou feels nothing for the victim of this car accident, nor any of the other hurt or dead people he’ll come across in this line of work. He feels nothing for his co-workers, either. He feels nothing. Lou seems to realize that in today’s economy, sensitivity will get you nowhere. In fact, it’s liable to hold you back. All that matters is success.
Lou buys a police scanner and hand-me-down camcorder. It’s far from state of the art, but content trumps quality in broadcast news. Within a few hours of deciding on his new line of work, Lou is already hiring a gopher lackey, Rick (Riz Ahmed), who will work for next to nothing, and he’s talking up his company like he’s owned it for years. (“Fake it until you make it” is clearly one of Lou’s many mantras.)
Lou also strikes up a compelling work relationship with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a former on-air talent who is now calling shots behind the cameras at KTLA, which we’re told has the lowest-rated news in Los Angeles. That means Nina is hungry for hits, and her new protegee is more than willing to bend the rules, ignore basic ethics, and even commit major crimes in order to get the top story. Nina matter-of-factly lays out what kind of news her viewers will tune in for — primarily, stories about well-to-do white people being affected by urban crime. The bloodier than better.The ruthlessness of the people who run the news media is hardly a novel concept. The fresh angle here is how Nightcrawler marries it with Lou, the entrepreneurial sociopath, an empty shell of a man spitting pearls of wisdom about the American dream. Nina is a direct descendent of the power-drunk Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) in Network, the carnivorous Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) in To Die For. In a word, she’s a bitch, but not necessarily because she was born that way. We sense that a lack of options shaped the woman we see today.
Lou Bloom’s cinematic cousins are less obvious and more numerous. You could go back to Taxi Driver for a story about a Caucasian misanthrope with no real place in American society until he endeavors to carve out a dangerous place for himself. There are more aesthetic echoes of the more recent Drive. (And all three films have something else in common: a lot of driving.)
Nightcrawler also has a lot in common with The Wolf Of Wall Street, my favorite film of last year, which some condemned for celebrating rather than condemning the hedonistic lifestyle of the men (and some women) who laughed all the way to the bank while fucking a good many Americans over. The same people may make similarly stupid claims about this movie, which isn’t interested in meting out a punishment that real life itself wouldn’t deliver. Like Jordan Belfort, Lou Bloom is a self-made man, but he is only allowed to succeed because he lives in a world that values money and image and grabby headlines, and looks the other way at greed and injustice. In both Nightcrawler and The Wolf Of Wall Street, there are law enforcing characters who represent a more idealistic school of thought. (In Scorsese’s film, it’s Kyle Chandler’s FBI agent, and here it’s Michael Hyatt’s Detective Fronteiri.) But there’s not a lot of time for justice when the clock is ticking and you’re on in 5.
Neither Lou nor Nina has any sympathy for the victims at the center of the crimes they’re exploiting, but they’re also struggling against a system that will chew them up and spit them out if they fail at their jobs. If they don’t do the dirty deeds, someone else will beat them to the story. In this movie, American capitalism is, perhaps, an even more vicious beast than the American media; they’re two mutant titans battling it out, and human beings are just little specks on the ground, running and screaming, trying to stay out of the way of the debris. No one in Nightcrawler is all-powerful, and no one does evil for evil’s sake. It’s all to get ahead, stay afloat, move forward. At one point, Lou stumbles upon a fresh crime scene that appears to be an innocent white family gunned down by Latino monsters. Eventually, we learn that this, too, was just a bit of bad business.
Nightcrawler was written and directed by Dan Gilroy, brother of Tony Gilroy, who brought us Michael Clayton. Like that movie, Nightcrawler has the bones of the standard studio thriller, but its flesh is something else entirely. These films elevate the standard genre material and dare to dig a little deeper into their characters, and into our souls. This is a movie that is saying something, not so much with words as with actions. Jake Gyllenhaal lost a significant amount of weight to portray the slimy-looking Lou Bloom, and he’s completely convincing and, in several moments, utterly creepy. We’re never quite sure what Lou is capable of, and we don’t put it past him to snap at any moment. (He could, maybe, be American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman’s less refined kid brother.) It’s one of Gyllenhaal’s best performances to date, and only one of several stellar showings from him recently. Enemy and Prisoners had extraordinarily impressive turns, but this one is Oscar-worthy. (Whether or not it actually nabs any attention from the Academy, we’ll see.)
It’s also a delight to see Rene Russo given plenty to do as the hard-edged but more vulnerable Nina, especially in one killer scene between these partners in crime set in a Mexican restaurant. Movies these days need more Rene Russo, especially if she’s feisty. For a film that seems to say so much about the American economy today, it’s surprising to note that Nightcrawler has only four characters of much significance, and focuses primarily on just two (though Rick becomes important in the film’s final act). Though it may not measure up entirely to the recent masterpieces of some of today’s finest auteurs, Nightcrawler has as much to say about Our Times as The Wolf Of Wall Street and The Social Network, as well a more recent David Fincher film: Gone Girl, which also hatefully and deliciously lambasted the American news media.
Nightcrawler will leave you disturbed about the news you watch and the country you live in, a place where a man like Lou Bloom can thrive at the expense of anyone who stands in his way. But that is the country we live in, a place where Jordan Belfort and Patrick Bateman and Mark Zuckerburg and Lou Bloom are calling the shots. Nightcrawler may be a work of fiction, but it rings truer than much of the “news” we’re fed. Because the news is brought to us by people, and all people have an agenda. Usually, that agenda is making money; other times, it’s just telling us the juiciest possible story.