Director: Dan Gilroy
Wow. For a couple of reasons, I regret having waited to watch NIGHTCRAWLER (2014) until it came out on DVD via Netflix. First, the Academy Awards have come and gone. Nominated for best original screenplay, the film garnered a lot of attention, although ultimately it did not win that award (and several others at the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and SAG). Second, this is one of those movies that likely plays best on the big screen — even though it is just fine on my flat-screen LCD TV. Why? The directorial debut for a well-known Hollywood screenwriter (who also wrote the screenplay), NIGHTCRAWLER is a feast for the senses, while it is also an intense character study that is brought to vivid, three-dimensional life by its leading actor.
Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal), a small-time L.A. thief with big aspirations and a grandiose view of himself, becomes obsessed with the world of freelance crime video-journalism after a chance encounter with a local crew of “nightcrawlers” at the scene of a freeway accident. He uses the proceeds of his last petty theft to purchase a police scanner and a camcorder. Teaching himself through questioning others and studying on the Internet, he manages to get better tape than the same crew of pros at another crime scene. He sells his video clip to Nina Romina (Russo), a veteran news producer who works the lowest-ranked local TV station. Thereafter — no matter what it takes — he brings her the kind of edgy crime video that gets viewers’ attention. Nina needs higher ratings to keep her job. Lou needs Nina to build his career, so he uses her professional (and personal) situation to his advantage. Adding Rick (Ahmed) as his assistant, he starts consistently beating the pros at their own game. His personality becomes ever more narcissistic and sociopathic as he becomes more successful. However, he starts crossing the line between observer and participant in crime scenes in his quest for ever more graphic video, since he knows that this is what TV news wants to show. Ultimately, he goes far past that line and does not look back, setting the stage (literally) for the ultimate crime news video — one that he will get no matter who gets hurt in the process.
Writer-director Gilroy wrote a protagonist who is as fascinating as he is repelling. Gyllenhaal makes this character his own, not only in his acting but even in his physical appearance. His by-now well-known weight loss for the part visually displays in every scene Lou’s insatiable hunger for success and the narcissistic strokes that come with it. Russo (who is married to Gilroy in real life) does a great job opposite Gyllenhaal as an older female TV news professional who goes against her better judgment (even taking into consideration her rather low ethical standards) for the sake of her career when confronted with Lou’s demands. Ahmed’s Rick provides a great foil for Gyllenhaal’s character, often reacting with words and deeds the way the audience is reacting internally to Lou’s behavior.
The story itself is deceptively straightforward and linear, as it shows Lou’s transformation as he gets (or makes) the opportunities he is looking for. There is practically no wasted moment in the film. The tension builds progressively as the action ramps up. The nighttime L.A. visuals are well done, adding to the atmosphere of foreboding and danger which Lou seems to love. Indeed, he thrives in it, although others often are not so fortunate. By the end of the film, Lou becomes the incarnation of the ultimate nightcrawler, especially in the word’s insect-like, parasitic connotation.
The only flaw that I could find in the film is in its climactic scene, near the end of the third act. It has to do with story details that would give away too much and thus be a huge spoiler if explained. Suffice it to say that it strains credulity that LAPD detectives do not go after Lou with more gusto than they do, once he comes to their attention. Nevertheless, the film’s ending makes the viewer think about successful individuals in the real world with personalities like Lou’s and how they are able to get away with fairly unbelievable behavior that is often downright misanthropic (but which they rationalize with pop business psychology platitudes). Along these lines, one of my favorite quotes is when Lou says to Rick (in a rare moment of transparency), “What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them?”
In the end, I am disappointed (but not shocked, Hollywood politics being what they are) that NIGHTCRAWLER did not have any wins at the major 2015 awards ceremonies. It’s an excellent film — a must-watch. Glad I finally got around to doing just that.