I almost never watch local newscasts, and frankly, I don’t understand why anyone does. The amount of important and useful information on a half hour local news timeslot is minimal and the rest of the time is taken up by barf inducing puff pieces, weather reports I can just as easily get online, sports reporting which I can just as easily get on ESPN, commercials, and of course lurid crime reporting which rarely serves any actual public service and mostly just gets reported because it’s sensational. I get that these newscasts are pandering to people’s base emotions, but if you want your heart warmed or want the crap scared out of you there would seem to be better places to go. And yet, it still seems like a fairly lucrative business. Every single local affiliate has four newscast a day, each of them substantially and stylistically identical to their competitor’s, and presumably draw a pretty big audience for all of them. Obviously I’m not the only one who isn’t a fan of local news though and the new movie Nightcrawler seems to be similarly disgusted by the state of local news in this country.
Nightcralwer concerns a young man named Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who starts the movie as a sleazy copper wire salvager who’s looking to get his foot in the door of one business or another. One night he’s passing by a firey car crash at the side of the road and sees a pair of cameramen pull up next to it and start photographing the wreck. After a brief meeting with one of the men he learns that these guys are freelance crime reporters who spend each night chasing police radio chatter to crime/accident scenes and then sells the footage to local news stations. Inspired, he decides that this is the business for him and buys a cheap camera and police scanner. He doesn’t start as a particularly talented photographer but he does soon begin to get salable footage, in part because he’s willing to cross ethical lines and put himself in danger in order to get the most sensational footage possible. He sells this footage to a struggling news station and begins a business relationship with their desperate news director Nina (Rene Russo), who encourages him to get more and more lurid video.
I can’t say that I ever put a whole lot of thought into how the local news gets their video footage, but Nightcrawler does work pretty well as a sort of chronicle/expose of the process. It turns out that it’s not an overly elaborate job: it mostly just requires a steady hand, a strong stomach, and a reckless willingness to break traffic laws. The film’s procedural elements are pretty interesting just the same. You see how Bloom prioritizes various police calls and rushes to the scene and then how he sells the footage after the fact to Nina. Nina is herself a rather ruthless character who makes no bones about the fact that she profits off of sensationalism. She explicitly tells Bloom that the stories that get the best ratings are the ones about crime happening in affluent neighborhoods, advancing a narrative about inner-city crime spreading into wealthy areas. I don’t doubt for a second that this is an accurate description of local media’s priorities, but I also suspect that an actual media producer would have a little too much self-awareness to actually say something like that out loud. Nina is in fact a rather satirical figure in a movie that is in its own dark and not overly comedic way a satire.
The fact that Nightcrawler involves a guy driving around Los Angeles at night will probably draw a lot of comparisons to Drive and Collateral, but the movie really has a lot more in common with a movie about a guy driving around New York at night: Taxi Driver. Like Travis Bickle in that Scorsese classic, the main character here is a strange loner, and not the quirky misunderstood kind. You can tell almost immediately that Bloom is basically a sociopath, but not the charming and manipulative kind. He doesn’t seem to really understand other people or how they perceive him; instead he looks up career advice from self-help books and robotically quotes what he’s “supposed” to say to potential business partners almost verbatim.
When you first see Bloom quoting all these career advice manuals you think he’s kind of clueless, someone who doesn’t really understand what he’s saying and who will soon come to learn that all that stuff works in theory better than it does in practice. However, the other shoe never really does drop on bloom. In fact, the more successful he becomes the more you begin to wonder if maybe this guy does know what he’s doing, maybe it’s not him that’s evil, maybe all this amoral behavior actually is what all this capitalistic business dogma does call for. Perhaps the movie has more to say about that dogma than it does about the character quoting it? After all, we’re used to seeing the Gordon Gekkos and Jordan Belforts of the world say things like this, but their businesses are so complicated and abstract that you never really see the fallout and even if you did those guys have a knack for hiding their bullshit behind a veil of respectability. This guy doesn’t. We see in him a sort of naked Machiavellianism and I think the film works a lot better when it’s exposing this than when it makes its rather obvious points about the worthless crap that pollutes the local news.
Nightcrawler was directed by Dan Gilroy (brother of Tony Gilroy and of John Gilroy, who have producer and editor screenplays here) and as far as debut films go it’s fairly impressive. I wouldn’t say that the style here is overly unique, but he knows how to shoot a scene and does a pretty good job of juggling the film’s dark but heightened tone. I’m not so enamored by Jake Gyllenhaal’s work here, in part because I feel like he’s a little old for the part. The character is supposed to be a young guy looking for an entry in the workforce, which is a bit undercut when he’s being played by a thirty-three year old man. Still, Gyllenhaal does do a pretty good job of making this intensely unlikeable character watchable, but it is still going to be pretty hard for a lot of audiences to accept a movie about a guy like this. Frankly, I’m kind of surprised that this is getting a wide release at all given how biting it can be, but I’m glad it did. This is a smart film that finds a unique way to make a point about certain truths about modern American society.
***1/2 out of Four