“I will never ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” says Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose manic energy makes this statement less than comforting. Louis is the ambitious sociopath at the center of Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, a truly nasty film that uses the context of local T.V. news to mount an American Psycho-esque satire of The American Dream. Louis is meant to represent today’s “self-made” man, completely self-educated via the Internet, and therefore devoid of people skills. From the opening sequence – in which he murders a security guard and steals his watch – his detachment from humanity is clear: he’s like Patrick Bateman without the job. But where American Psycho blurs the lines between reality and fantasy (it could all be a dream), Nightcrawler instead places its anti-hero firmly in the real world, and as Louis resorts to increasingly reprehensible behavior, the film’s representation of the “real world” goes from biting cynicism to suffocating misanthropy.
After he fails at obtaining a job at a scrapyard, Louis stumbles onto a highway accident. Like the calloused creep that he is, he pulls over and walks right up to the flaming car, at which point a van pulls up and two guys with video cameras jump out. These are stringers – people who troll accident or crime scenes gathering footage to sell to the morning news. “If it bleeds, it leads,” the crew’s leader (Bill Paxton, perfectly cast) says to the curious Louis, who immediately resolves to get in on the action. Jake Gyllenhaal – apparently exclusively playing weirdoes now – interprets the petty thief turned amateur videographer with a bug-eyed energy that truly leaves an impression. Losing 20 pounds for the role, he embodies the slim, emaciated figure of someone who surely doesn’t indulge himself. In fact, Louis is never shown eating, sleeping, or making love; when he’s not working, he sits alone on his computer. In effect, he is portrayed as someone other than human, like a superhero. Lou is never weak, vulnerable, or merciful; he is the ideal of self-sufficiency and self-improvement, doing whatever it takes to get ahead.
Dan Gilroy makes his directorial debut with Nightcrawler, and the craftsmanship on display is undeniably impressive. Enlisting the help of cinematographer Robert Elswit (who also shot Inherent Vice, which is the year’s best looking film by far), Gilroy shoots his characters from low-angle close-ups that exaggerate their menacing presence. The climactic car chase is an exhilarating sequence that places the audience firmly in the position of Lou’s in-over-his-head assistant. Together with Rene Russo’s convincing portrayal of a despicably desperate news anchor, all the pieces of Nightcrawler point to it being a masterpiece. The problem is that Dan Gilroy seems to not only hate his characters, but also hate his audience. Since we’re not meant to question Lou’s likability, we’re encouraged instead to watch with sadistic amusement. When looked at in this way, the film becomes like a test: How sick are we? Are we like Lou, completely detached from the misfortune of others? Or are we like the faceless L.A.ers who keep him in business by sadistically watching the trashy news reports? Unless we stop watching the movie, we’re implicated as one or the other.
While on his way to another crime scene, Louis hears a call over his police radio citing an armed home invasion. Immediately changing course, he and his nervous assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) arrive at the scene before the cops. After secretly getting footage of the assailants leaving the scene, Louis boldly enters the scene of the triple murder with his camera rolling. As he coldly films the victims – effectively assisting the murder of one who is still breathing – the movie makes the leap from provocation to heavy-handed manipulation. The sequence builds to a moment in which Louis enters the home’s nursery, and we’re made to hold our breath as he fearlessly aims the lens into the crib. But the reveal is saved for later, as the footage is being shown on T.V. with the phony news anchors narrating. When it gets to the nursery, Russo’s Nina Romina shouts commands into an earpiece, “Build it! Build it!” As the broadcast shamelessly sensationalizes the brutal scene, it also describes our sadistic experience of watching it the first time; not only does the film play us like an instrument, it mocks us for being so easy to play.