Nightcrawler should lead to bigger, better things

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First Posted: 11/3/2014

If “Nightcrawler” had been made some time in the ‘70s, it would have been considered insightful, scathing and possibly even groundbreaking. But nowadays it just seems obvious and heavy-handed. In the age of TMZ and the 24-hour news-cycle, it’s not exactly revelatory to point out that the news media is frequently empty and exploitative. Nor is it shocking to note that your local news affiliates care more about ratings than concepts like journalistic integrity. Conceptually, the lack of ethics in journalism is a dead horse that’s been beaten for so long it’s basically just dust and marrow at this point. As a social commentary or satire, “Nightcrawler” is a failure but thankfully, “Nightcrawler” isn’t just about making Matt Lauer, Hoda Kotb and all of those other news-jerks oh-so-sorry they ever pretended to look sad in front of a teleprompter, it’s also a fascinating character study that explores the ill-advised motivations of a gaunt, bug-eyed sociopath.

In “Nightcrawler”, Jake Gyllenhaal plays the gaunt, bug-eyed sociopath in question, a desperate opportunist named Louis Bloom who doesn’t just coldcock a railroad security guard when he’s caught stealing a chain-link fence, Louis also makes it a point to steal the rent-a-cop’s conspicuously expensive-looking watch while the guard is knocked out. Yes, Louis may be human garbage, but he’s ambitious human garbage and when he fails to get a foothold in the lucrative scrap metal industry, he finds his niche when he forces himself onto a crime scene just to watch a cameraman (Bill Paxton) film the grisly aftermath of a car crash. Paxton is a ‘nightcrawler’, a freelance cameraman who specializes in bloody footage exploiting human misery. Sensing a golden opportunity, Louis buys equipment (by pawning a stolen bike), acquires a naïve but equally desperate “intern” (Riz Ahmed) and sets out to conquer the world of nightcrawling through a combination of sheer will, determination and a casual disregard for the law as well as human life.

Although critics have given short shrift to the other fine performances in this film (particularly Rene Russo who humanizes the frequently broad caricature she’s forced to play), “Nightcrawler” is a startling showcase for Gyllenhaal’s previously underutilized talents. Wiry, robotic and dead-eyed, Gyllenhaal’s Louis suggests what Rupert Pupkin would have been like if he was slightly more awkward and read “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” one too many times. Louis is an unblinking creep who speaks to people with the patronizing formality of the human resources director who conducts the exit interview a little too joyfully. Yet you can’t look away from his sad little life even when things get extremely uncomfortable such as the scene where Louis blackmails his boss (Russo) into having sex with him as they’re both crammed into the dreariest booth in the most depressing Mexican restaurant you ever laid eyes on. Never before has the banality of evil been portrayed so vividly on film.

Unfortunately, “Nightcrawler” is the kind of movie that also has to make a point. Even worse, it’s a point that is increasingly irrelevant in an age when local overnight news broadcasts are quickly becoming a thing of the past. “Nightcrawler” clumsily attacks ratings hungry news outlets with a shocking lack of subtlety. Russo is specifically looking for stories that “show how urban crime sweeps into the suburbs”, Paxton casually notes, “that if it bleeds it leads”, Gyllenhaal admits at one point that he “hates people.” These are not real words that come out of actual people’s factual mouths, these are excerpts from a poorly written grad school thesis on Fox News. All of which is a shame because “Nightcrawler” had the makings of a modern classic. Instead, it’s merely a calling card for Gyllenhaal who will undoubtedly go onto bigger and better things.