“Nightcrawler” Thrills When It’s Not Moralizing

Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

Nightcrawler is the directing debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy, co-written with his brother, Tony Gilroy, who also directed), and whatever I may think about the movie (and I am not as big a fan as the rest of the world), it does not feel like a first movie. Gilroy, working with acclaimed cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) and his other brother, veteran editor John Gilroy (Michael Clayton, also written and directed by Tony), has crafted an assured action thriller that delivers the goods when it comes to suspenseful storytelling. He also does a fine job directing Rene Russo (The Thomas Crown Affair), who delivers a performance that makes us realize what we’ve been missing since she stopped being as ubiquitous as she was in the 1990s. Russo just happens to also be Gilroy’s wife (this is a family affair), but no matter – she earns her place in the film. Unfortunately, her co-star, Jake Gyllenhaal (End of Watch), though clearly fully committed to his role, is so weird and off-putting that he threatens to derail the movie. True, the whole point is that he is supposed to be odd and creepy, but not to the point where it is unbelievable that anyone could take him seriously. I like Gyllenhaal, but he’s simply too much, here.

Gyllenhaal plays Lou (or Louis, as he prefers to be called, later) Bloom, an extremely lost soul and ne’er-do-well whom we first meet cutting a fence by a train track, then beating the man who confronts him. It turns out he’s a thief, as well, since we next see him peddling items stolen from the train yard. When he talks, he sounds as if he learned to speak by reading a business self-help manual, as if he’s a cousin to the alien Scarlett Johansson played in Under the Skin, freshly minted and not quite at ease in his new body. The first guy he pesters for a job has a very sane reaction: no.

But then Bloom discovers the joys of human suffering. Or rather, as he’s watching a woman in a car accident pulled from the burning wreckage by EMTs, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton from “Big Love“) shows up with a camera, which he shoves into the middle of the rescue. What’s going on? asks Bloom. It’s for the news, says Loder. For sale to the highest bidder, he means. And suddenly our demented protagonist has a calling. Little by little, he figures out the game, and earns more and more money peddling his parasitic video footage to one particular late-night news producer, Nina Romina (Russo). The fact that Bloom is clearly insane does not deter Romina from buying his material – as long as it’s gruesome – though it does put her in an awkward position once it becomes clear that Bloom wants more than just money. This is what seems to be Gilroy main point: that we are a society so benumbed and corrupted by the 24-hour news cycle that we have become ghouls in need of (on-screen) flesh on which to (vicariously) feed. That’s a radical notion . . . for the 1970s, when Sidney Lumet’s Network came out with much the same thesis. Speaking of the 1970s, Gilroy also seems to be cribbing from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, since Gyllenhaal channels Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, right down to the same initial shy politeness.

So as a societal critique, Nightcrawler simply doesn’t work, as we are already way beyond being horrified by its revelations. And too often Gilroy gives the game away by explaining Bloom’s motivations too early (as when he exacts revenge on his now-rival Loder). But where the film does finally get it right is in the second half, after Bloom has crossed one ethical line too many and the film becomes more of a procedural thriller than a polemic. As Bloom and his hapless assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed, from The Reluctant Fundamentalist) barrel down the streets of Los Angeles on the tail of a police cruiser chasing a violent criminal, the adrenaline rush we feel is very real.

So see it for that, and for Russo, if not for its shopworn criticisms of the media.