Nightcrawler


Screenwriter and first-time director Dan Gilroy has pulled off a neat trick with his debut. He's able to embed his manifold social commentaries and tell a thrilling tale too.

Gilroy sets his sights on so many topics that it's a wonder his barbs don't seem too scattershot. The bloodthirsty news media that wraps its ghoulishness up in wheedling faux-concern for the viewer is the most obvious skewering, but Gilroy also attacks the desperate search for work in America's barren job market and the meaninglessness at the heart of new-age business strategy. Through anti-hero Lou Bloom's inexorable rise from the bottom to the top, that old whipping boy of Western cinema, the American Dream, is lampooned once again. Instead of cluttering the story as one might expect, each new target provides darkly amusing colouring to the propulsive narrative. Make no mistake, Gilroy's script is funny. But so nasty too that it’s likely to have more people gasping than laughing out loud.

The centre of the piece is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Bloom, petty thief turned ‘nightcrawler’, a freelance cameraman of gory footage for morning news broadcasts. The intelligent and articulate Bloom admits to having little conventional education, but has absorbed online business models and corporate training techniques like a sponge. These are the tools he will employ in his rise to power and perhaps the only ways he is able to communicate, understand situations, or even think. In some of the best moments of the film, even his expressions of attraction or threats of violence are delivered in the measured tone of a performance review.

For a character who talks in the sort of bullshit middle-management platitudes that have office workers switching off, Bloom is eminently watchable, thanks to a fascinating performance by Gyllenhaal. His decision to drop 30 pounds and refrain from sleeping any more than necessary during filming pays off. His Bloom has the lean and hungry look that would make Cassius entirely rethink his aesthetic. And his steely determination in the face of danger stems not from the standard action hero bravado, but his disturbing single-mindedness, which makes him just as idiosyncratic a protagonist during the film's chase and action sequences as it does during its more cerebral moments.

There is an echo of Norman Bates, not just in Bloom’s psychopathy but also in his curious naivety, still with that element of the puppy dog Boy Scout Gyllenhaal displayed in Zodiac as a cartoonist and would-be crime fighter. Bloom is keen – unconstrainedly keen, disturbingly keen – the kind of opportunist who has an employee-of-the-month leader board in lieu of a moral code. As such, his attachment to a local news station in need of a ratings boost becomes a marriage made in heaven.

He is surrounded by a decent supporting cast. Rene Russo’s station editor, as wary of Bloom’s dangerous qualities as she is beguiled by his effect on the network’s ratings, is great, and some of the best (and most excruciating) scenes take place between her and Gyllenhaal, as we realise that her more cynical amorality may be no less horrifying than Bloom’s. Riz Ahmed, playing his hapless sidekick Richard, is excellent as another victim of the collapsed economy clinging for dear life to the career ladder, even if it means working for the increasingly unpredictable Bloom. Richard is the assistant to Bloom’s mad scientist, afraid of and in awe of his master in equal measure, and it’s a testament to Ahmed’s brilliant performance that we believe in his reasons for sticking with the job when the going gets twisted.

The cinematography is also always arresting. There are elements of Michael Mann’s cold cityscapes in this depiction of LA which fits nicely with the chilly narrative. I’m also personally a sucker for a nicely angled stationary shot of a downtown building in the style of Frederick Elmes’ work for David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch, which Nightcrawler delivers in spades. With writer/director, cast and crew firing on all cylinders, it’s unsurprising that this is a film that excites you in the cinema, and leaves you thinking for some time after you’ve left it.

Thomas Marsh

Listings

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