Nightcrawler, a new thriller with a sense of humor by Dan Gilroy, is a recession-era American Psycho. It’s a story that grasps the misery of low wages and lower cunning. Or perhaps it could be described as the Hunger Games of capitalist exploitation, couched in a critique of the American news media in all its graphic absurdity. The economic crisis of inequality transmutes here into scenes of a fiery car crash, an exhilarating police chase, and the obliteration of human decency. You won’t be able to look away.
The film follows Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom as he slithers into the violent world of local news by selling footage of crime scenes and accidents to a Los Angeles TV station. He arrives at this career path after watching a cameraman snag video of victims being pulled from a blazing car fire. Lou is intrigued, and decides to go freelance. His descent into the dark art of macabre videography pushes the plot, and Gilroy’s social commentary, along. We track his progress from the faking-it stage to the heights of his new powers—he tampers with evidence to achieve a better shot, and extorts his boss for sex, all while leveraging his indispensable photojournalism skills.
Lou, a character of strident striving and jutting cheekbones, is careerism embodied—he’s like a walking LinkedIn profile fortified with an online MBA he sewed together from a series of TED Talks and Republican National Conventions. He is all greed and no grace. He is a child raised by wolves…and the American Enterprise Institute. Gyllenhaal is thin. His face is gaunt. Lou’s BMI is testament to his frenzied scheming, but also to his not being able to afford food. His sudden success in capturing gory images offers a first taste of financial security. In Nightcrawler’s world, as in ours, the moral challenge of feeding bloodied bodies and racialized anxiety to the media machine is easily surmounted with ratings and money. This never bothers Lou. Lou is dying to get ahead.
Gilroy makes effective use of James Newton Howard’s score in several memorable scenes. As Lou launches toxic monologues laced with robber-baron logic to defend his indecent aesthetic or his merciless management style, the sonata crescendos triumphantly. The contrast of feel-good War Horse melody with Lou’s callous rationale is ironic and amusing. Not even the music takes him seriously. But Lou is deeply serious. And he keeps winning.
Newsroom ethics, while visibly the focus of the film, seems like mere scaffolding. The movie’s explicit criticism, that news caters to the allure of the grotesque—holding true to the maxim “if it bleeds, it leads”—is an important one. So is the argument that white victimhood, and black and brown criminality, are conjured and channeled through the news. But Gilroy’s film, situated in a sprawling, multicultural metropolis, doesn’t really ponder those things as much as recite them. More compelling is Gilroy’s message that our current collective financial situation is breeding a desperate kind of cruelty. In this economy, being a sociopath and being a go-getter aren’t so different.
Lou exacts his own version of this cruelty on more than one person, but it’s his intern that receives the most sustained dose. Rick, an unlucky soul played by Riz Ahmed, comes face-to-face with what might as well be called payment on an unpaid basis. Homeless and burdened with the absence of any real prospects, Rick has to swallow Lou’s professional and personal abuse. With agonized facial gestures and stuttering enunciation, Ahmed vibrates with despair. Lou’s domination of Rick, and Rick’s capitulation to Lou, is the saddest thing in the film. Rick is dying to get ahead.
“Nightcrawling,” as Gilroy presents it, refers not only to a vocation but to a mindset. Bad things often take place unseen. Lou’s predatory lurking propels him to new depths. He, like all nocturnal creatures, grows stronger without the sober light of day. Acceptability becomes whatever one can get away with. Deviance becomes a competitive advantage. One shot in particular brings to mind Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho: in a rare outburst, Lou lets out a satanic exhale of rage, and we see that below the rehearsed, pleasant demeanor teems a predilection to violence. We sense that this fury below the surface is never really extinguished; it’s only subdued.
Nightcrawler suggests that the bold transgressions of Lou’s character aren’t limited to fictional conceits. Unmoored from morality, the diligence that today’s career advancement requires can look a lot like barbarism. In an environment defined by underemployment, drifters, manipulators, and bottom-feeders stage performance art in our contemporary coliseum. The ratings are up. But more importantly, it’s what the market will bear.