An enthusiastic young man beams at his potential employer. “What I believe, sir,” he nods, “is that good things come to those who work their asses off.” His pitch is self-assured and friendly. A watch, expensive and stylish, jingles on his wrist as he physically punctuates his points with zeal. The watch belongs to the man he beat to death less than an hour ago.
Louis “Lou” Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a disturbingly overeager entrepreneur from Los Angeles who is committed to making his way in the world at any and all costs. After struggling to find a career in a city where no one can afford to hire him, he gains traction “nightcrawling.” With a police scanner and a complete disregard for speeding limits, Lou races to be the first cameraman at the most brutal crime scenes. He then competitively sells the footage to a local news station that is starving for stories. Lou dreams of climbing the company ladder and becoming “the guy that owns the station that owns the camera.” His Macbethian ambition drives him to push the ethical envelope, and we quickly learn that there’s nothing Lou won’t do to ensure his footage is the cream of the sensationalized, gory crop, even if that means getting involved in crime himself.
In his new film, Nightcrawler, writer and director Dan Gilroy tries to revolutionize a classic story, but unfortunately falls short. The tale of an ambitious man playing dirty to climb to the top of his profession is not new, and nothing that happens in Nightcrawler is particularly unexpected. Production elements are recycled. The candied fluorescence Gilroy emphasizes in his LA-at-night establishing shots recalls Nicolas Winding Refn’s “neon-noir” thriller, Drive. James Newton Howard’s score echoes the simplistic, synthetic sounds of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s The Social Network. Gilroy’s rehashed plot starts off slow and never substantially picks up the pace. Individual scenes have arcs of tension and suspense that wrap up in their designated ten minutes more often than they contribute to an overall climactic journey. The result is a film that’s a little one-note, even if that one note is generally entertaining, filled with blood splatter, fast cars, and Lou’s off-putting, squeaky-clean smile.
Thankfully, Gilroy’s direction is more impressive than his writing. Gilroy makes it clear that the seedy urban sprawl of nighttime LA is Lou’s playground. Scenes are carefully constructed so that when Lou is filming, the audience is only able to see what Lou decides is relevant; his camera’s view screen provides the picture while the real world around it remains out of focus. Even when Lou’s camera is off, the character is framed by television screens at the studio, in his apartment, on the street. Gilroy makes sure we cannot ignore the politics of storytelling in this film. Lou is in charge of the story being told and he is warping how others interpret reality to suit his needs.
Jake Gyllenhaal gives a solid performance of a character we’ve seen before. Not only is the ruthless antihero rapidly gaining popularity in current media (House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad), but Gyllenhaal’s particular brand of discordant, unblinking cheeriness has already been applauded in characters such as Norman Bates (Psycho, 1960), Patrick Bateman (American Psycho, 2000), and the Cable Guy (The Cable Guy, 1996). The devotion of 117 minutes exclusively to the exploration of the same queasy character that’s made our skin crawl for fifty years is close to overkill. But Gyllenhaal fills the well-worn shoes with grace, churning audiences’ stomachs as he takes in a gruesome triple murder with empty eyes and excitedly films a man drowning in his own blood.
British-Pakistani actor, Riz Ahmed, steals the show as Lou’s hired assistant, Rick, providing a refreshingly human foil to Gyllenhaal’s sterilized, plastic mask. Lou speaks almost entirely in motivational go-getter slogans that the millennial generation has been spoon-fed. In a country with a struggling economy, overwhelming student debt, and high employment qualifications, those of “the me me me generation” will find that Lou’s useless platitudes lend Nightcrawler an edge of dark comedy. When Lou reveals to Rick that his job offer is really for an unpaid internship—a valuable “chance to explore career options”—Ahmed successfully and hilariously treads the awkward line between offended bewilderment and fear of offending a potential employer. Ahmed’s performance is understated and organic, impressively drawing in the audience’s sympathy even when Gyllenhaal’s thrilling psychopathy demands so much of our attention. Rick is the millennial audience surrogate, exploding out of his determinedly laid-back shell to shout that Lou’s “gotta talk to [people] like they’re human beings” and not propaganda sound boards.
Gilroy’s takedown of Lou’s lack of empathy represents our generation’s critique of the current state of capitalism in America. The millennial audience knows from experience that ambition and hard work aren’t enough anymore, and Gilroy’s condemning portrayal of a man who believes otherwise gives an admirable political twist to a film that is otherwise not especially imaginative. Gilroy may have overreached his abilities, however, as the script’s simplicity does not allow the issue the depth it requires and deserves. Ultimately, Nightcrawler is a movie that has already been made multiple times. But the story is a classic for a reason; Nightcrawler is undeniably an entertaining film. It’s a flashy psychological thriller that satisfies our insatiable, sick fascination with watching the most twisted and inhumane characters succeed.
An almost fresh adaptation of an always entertaining story