Nightcrawler works overtime to impress upon you just how weird Jake Gyllenhaal looks. Gone is the puppyish lead of Brokeback and Donnie Darko; farewell, too, the cub reporter of Zodiac, although something of the unhealthy, solitary obsession remains. As Lou Bloom, opportunist at large on the streets of L.A. after dark, the eyes are buggier than ever, the brows more beetling, the hair rather too assiduously slicked over, as though to cover something up. If this was the boy next door, you wouldn’t want to go looking in his basement. The one truly stinging gag in Dan Gilroy’s dark-comic satire is that even as Bloom gets more successful, he doesn’t become any less weird; rather, his weirdness merely has a greater legitimacy conferred upon it. What Gilroy has given us here is a peculiar American success story, charting Bloom’s progress from rootless drifter – introduced mugging a security guard for his watch – to roving newshound, flogging gonzo reportage of the dead and dying to a struggling 24-hour network: a gig that first generates chump change, later thousands of dollars a pop.
We’re in semi-familiar satirical territory here. Bloom could be the digital-era offspring of Powell’s Peeping Tom, the diary-keeping narcissist David Holzman or The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin, if their voyeuristic impulses and rampant self-interest didn’t automatically disqualify any of these oddballs with cameras from spawning. The difference is that, emboldened with his pressed shirts and Web-sourced affirmation-speak, uglymug Bloom actually comes to seem like the respectable face of his ruthless business. Though a shameless hustler, Lou Bloom stays true to himself in having absolutely no ethical standards to betray; Gilroy’s real contempt is reserved for the networks, as represented here by producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo), desperate for the (literal) car-crash viewing that might pique channelsurfing viewers’ interest, thus bolstering both ratings and advertising revenue.
Some of Nightcrawler comes over as an illustrated rant – well-illustrated, certainly, long-time Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Robert Elswit giving the image a nocturnal sheen not witnessed on this turf since Michael Mann’s Collateral. Yet it’s a rant nonetheless, and Gilroy’s ire at the way the industry works sits rather too close to the surface in certain scenes: that Lou and Nina should eventually end up in bed together, both figuratively and literally, feels more than a little on the nose. To make the leap from superior popcorn movie to great modern satire, Nightcrawler really needed to do more to implicate its audience: we’re the ones rubbernecking, after all. I don’t think Gilroy dares to, which is why, for all the hype, the film comes to resemble local news; it’s Hollywood reporting on its own lower levels. We know Lou Bloom’s a bottom-feeder, and the normals gathering at crime scenes to gawp or mourn regard him as somewhere between a nuisance and a parasite; it’s only the apparently intelligent Nina, and her himbo-bimbo anchors, who fall for what this guy’s peddling.
Gyllenhaal plays what he’s given to the hilt – it’s worth seeing for the crazed conviction he brings to such hushed, plain-spoken sociopathy – yet Lou only ever operates at the level of committed caricature. How much creepier would Nightcrawler have been had Lou Bloom walked and talked like one of us, rather than like some self-improving fairground ghoul? It would have been less of a comedy, I suspect, and – if still nothing to rival Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer on the ways we consume violence – a far tougher, trickier film for that. This Nightcrawler is very watchable, and very much inside-L.A.: unless you happen to be a producer on a low-rating news channel, or one of those twerps who spend their days and nights pushing recording equipment into the faces of A-listers like Gyllenhaal, it’s media satire you can witness on a Friday night and have forgotten almost entirely about by Saturday teatime. Ace in the Hole can rest easy once more.
(MovieMail, November 2014)
Nightcrawler screens on BBC2 at 9pm tonight.