A flighty but spectacular walk on the mean streets of the new media.
Having written the screenplay for “The Bourne Legacy” and other hits, Dan Gilroy apparently decided to take the plunge and try his hand at directing. His debut with “Nightcrawler” may be one of the most spectacularly successful first efforts seen for some time. This is helped, in large measure, by the riveting performance of Jake Gyllenhaal as nebbish video news reporter Louis Bloom. Casting is critical to the success of any picture. Whether it is just coincidence that Bloom’s character fits Gyllenhaal like a glove, or whether it is testimony to his profound acting skill, he takes his role, and what otherwise would have been a lightweight film, to dizzying heights.
This is the incredible story of cub reporter Louis Bloom learning fast. There is no back story for the seemingly feckless Bloom, nor does there have to be. His character is so fantastic and yet so identifiable that to give him a past would only water him down. He has sprung from Los Angeles’ womb fully formed; a bright, inquisitive young man with a huge motivation to succeed and a marginal understanding of basic ethics. His demands are not outrageous; he only wants what the rest of America has, recognition and a chance to make a difference. But the boundless power of modern day American media may give him more opportunity then is good for him, or us.
Louis is disciplined; he has taken several online courses in management. Conspicuous by its absence, he missed the course in ethics. Then, again, perhaps the winners in the present day Western world are those who are lighter on the ethics and heavier on the motivation. After a creative but disappointing try at petty theft, Bloom stops at a grisly car accident and runs into Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). Joe is a veteran video reporter for TV news, running his two man firm Mayhem Video (I am not making this up). Paxton’s performance is one of a half dozen blue-chip supporting roles that boost this film from OK to fabulous.
Basically a good hearted person who follows the wrong role models, Bloom naively breaks every rule imaginable and, impossibly, gets away with it. Like Suzanne Stone in “To Die For,” he becomes an anchorless cannon on the deck of an information industry driven mad by cut-throat competition. Bumbling into the KWLA news studio he meets news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) and sells her his first grisly footage for a song. Oscar winning cinematographer Robert Elswit drills into Gyllenhall’s face the same way he did with Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood” and the wheels turn before Nina’s eyes. Louis Bloom comes to life, like Frankenstein. As Nina sees it, we see it, and we are thrilled as we are horrified.
News is usually shown during the day, but bad news usually happens during the night, and bad news sells. This gives writer-director Gilroy the chance to alternate sequences throughout the film between day and night. This imparts a nice edginess to the presentation that refuses to let us get into a comfort zone. Night brings out the vulture in Louis; daytime brings out his practical side. There is a Jekyll and Hyde quality about the young man that is more universal than we would like to admit. Many of us would exploit situations that dropped in our laps, as long as no one was hurt and there was a six-figure payoff in the future. The difficulty comes in not crossing over the line.
As one might expect, this is a film about crossing over the line, made all the more intense by the nebbish character doing it. The tension and terror that is achieved by the story is the contrast between a basically good, if naïve, man who is only guilty of an exceptional talent for compartmentalization and a manipulative monster who accepts death as his duty. As his on-line management course taught him, concentration and focus are everything. Oh, yes, that and good communication.
Forgive the lapses in reality (unscrambled police-band broadcasts about armed killers in a coffee shop) and the (thankfully) brief car chase. Two solid performances by Kiff VandenHeuvel as the news editor who cannot believe his station is airing what Nina is buying and Riz Ahmed as Rick, Louis Bloom’s first employee. Not to mention Michael Hyatt’s Detective Fronteiri as the one person who seems to know more about Louis than Louis knows about himself. All of these characters are critical in providing continuous feedback of how crazy Bloom really is, while Bloom himself dares us to think he could never exist. Los Angeles is not populated completely by madmen, even if, in this film, they seem to be running the show.