Taking place on the streets of LA, Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir film, Nightcrawler, feels germane to the NYC crime movies like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. But while Scorcese’s films strove to capture the perception and reality of a seedy 1970s New York, Gilroy’s Nightcrawler depicts LA, not as it’s perceived in 2014–with it’s sun-kissed beaches, yoga studios, and Kardashian gaudiness–but as an underworld of blackmail, voyeurism, and violence.
The film’s protagonist is bug-eyed, slim, well-dressed, handsome, articulate to a fault, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal). The first observation you make about him is his unusual language. When it comes to impressing employers, he talks like a Business-Essentials textbook. When speaking to his single employee, his language is full of positive psychology, negative criticism always being preceded by some positive reinforcement. “You’re doing a great job, but…” This of course makes it painfully ironic that the guy who has studied and internalized the how-tos of modern discourse actually comes cross as robotic and emotionally cold. What Lou fails to realize is that it’s nuance that makes people feel real and human, not a language that conforms to an idea of how language should be spoken.
And just as with language, so too with behavior. Lou has a sense of how behavior should be, and in his earnestness to convey this behavior, it comes off as forced and unnatural. Take for instance when Lou is watching a comedy show on TV. During the laugh tracks he turns around to his empty room with an exaggerated laugh, almost as if he’s trying to mimic what should be a normal human response. Nonetheless, it’s not until the desperate-for-work Lou finds his vocation as a nightcrawler, filming LA night crime, violence, and tragedy, that he evolves from a social outcast to a unforgiving filmmaker.
Lou’s success as a nightcrawler hinges on two things, an emotional detachment from the world around him, and an absolute ruthlessness to get his shots. Disregarding the rules of a closed crime scene, Lou doesn’t hesitate to manipulate objects, whether it’s moving photographs on a refrigerator, or pulling a body into a car’s headlights. Following the old adage that a story should be told not as it actually happened, but as it should have happened, Lou’s distorted footage is a hit with the morning news director of a local station, Nina Romania (Rene Russo). The peak of his success, however, comes when Lou milks a story involving homicide in an affluent neighborhood. He has the opportunity to disclose information that would have no doubt led to the police closing the case, but instead Lou frames how, where, and when the bust will be made, all to please Nina’s sensationalism-lapping audience, and augment his own reputation. The consequence of this is the supposed death of many innocent lives, and the confirmed death of his sole employee. But hey, at least he got his shot.
Whether it’s beating up a security guard for his wristwatch, repeatedly demanding name recognition by the morning news anchors, blackmailing Nina for sex, or tricking his employee into his own death–for the selfish reason of capturing beautifully tragic footage–Lou doesn’t reveal the tiniest trace of empathy. For him, people both dead or alive are either props, stepping stones, or both. His unfeelingness parallels American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman, except instead of boredom, Lou’s motivation is an unflinching drive to succeed. And while the audience of American Psycho is at least given Bateman’s internal monologues, revealing the businessman’s extreme paranoia, what’s frightening about Nightcrawler is that Lou never meets any formidable resistance, from others or from himself. Bateman’s encounters with Detective Donald Kimball are disconcerting; Lou’s time with his interrogator borders on comedy.
With a disturbed sociopath as the central role, you’d almost anticipate Lou to be surrounded by “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima.” But instead you get this oddly placed light guitar strumming, which appears at both the beginning and end of the film. The music is soft and has a sense of hopefulness. It introduces Lou, desperately fighting for survival, while reappearing at the final scene, with Lou’s expansion of his nightcrawler business with two vans and three new recruits. So the music initially reflects Lou’s optimism towards life, then congratulates the highpoint of his career. Which is peculiar, because from our vantage point, at the end, Lou hardly deserves admiration. But that’s the point. There’s never any final catharsis from us, the viewer, because there’s never any obstacle that Lou can’t overcome. The music which accompanies Lou’s promising future at the end also serves the function at highlighting this disconnect between perception and reality, the perception of a go-getter chasing the American Dream, and the reality of a truly sick and manipulative man. Why was this music chosen? Because the best sociopaths out there are victorious at the end of day. Not only that, but they are indistinguishable from the rest of us. There’s no sinister music when a modern Lou Bloom walks into your Starbucks to order a cappuccino.
What works best about Nightcrawler, more than the character, the story, or the music, is that the film is set, not in NYC, nor SF, but in LA. The mecca of entertainment. Where storytelling is king. Where how a story is told and framed is far more compelling that what the story is actually about. Therefore, Lou’s obsession with taking the perfect shot for his news stories reveals the darker side of Hollywood, where entertainment and egoism matter more than content. Like a Vice documentary, or Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, whose work draws us in not always on the basis of content, but on artful presentation–just think how easily forgettable the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66 would be much as a History Channel program–Lou becomes a paragon of what LA is truly about. Never mind his social awkwardness and emotional disconnect with people. Perhaps in this city of fake smiles (think Botox), the deception behind Lou’s creepy grin makes his the fakest of them all, making him the perfect Angelino.
-Nathan Le Master, May 2016