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Nightcrawler ***1/2

Is it worth $10? Yes

The term “nightcrawler” refers to videographers who listen to police scanners, race to crime scenes, film the action and then sell the footage to local news stations. The profession is not virtuous, but it is necessary for television news, and proficient nightcrawlers can make a nice living at it. 

And when you’re a sociopath who has no qualms about moving a dead body before police arrive to get a better shot, as is the case in “Nightcrawler,” even better.

The reason TV news covets the salacious material is because its ratings books suggest that’s what people want to see. If it bleeds it leads, right? So TV producers feed the nightcrawling monster; the hell with positive stories of people doing good when there’s a home invasion with three murders in an affluent neighborhood. 

These (seeming) facts are what “Nightcrawler” gets right: That a thief and sociopath like Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) can buy a camera and police scanner, find an accident/crime scene, record the footage and try to sell it to the news director (Rene Russo) at a local news station. With moderate success he can afford to upgrade his equipment, hire help (Riz Ahmed), and learn business 101 basics online. Lou also discovers that orchestrating accident/crime scenes so he can be the first one there – even before police – can be much more lucrative, and with no moral compass the entire city of Los Angeles is at risk. 

Gyllenhaal is nothing short of creepy, and the film is better because of it. Note the way his calm monotone voice and big eyes have a disarming effect, suggesting a gentility about Lou that’s belied by his conduct. The truth is Lou is an avaricious monster who will do or say anything to get what he wants in any aspect of his life. 

The night shooting in Los Angeles brings two recent films to mind, both of which showcased a superior visual pallet than what’s seen here. Both Michael Mann’s “Collateral” (2004) and Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (2011) hit the right notes of coarseness and muted neon to almost make the city a character in itself. Here, though, Gilroy eschews the broader scope for a series of smaller moments that highlight Lou’s isolation but fail to paint L.A. as a city of sin. This is appropriate for the film, but one wonders how Lou would’ve handled being in real danger himself. 

“Nightcrawler” is a fascinating, dark and damning film that has the guts to say things we don’t want to hear. Its grim subject matter suggests limited box office prospects, and in truth it will play better with the indie film crowd (it was the talk of the town at the Toronto Film Festival in September) than the mainstream. 

It’s kind of ironic, actually: Viewers flock to this type of content on TV news, but when it’s presented in an unflattering way on a movie screen people are more likely to stay away. This makes sense: For the masses, TV is in part for news and reality programming, while movies are for escapism. Hopefully the film will receive enough acclaim to get people to open their eyes about what media they’re consuming, because anything programmed by a sociopath can’t be good.

Did you know? 

The film is a Gilroy family passion project: Rene Russo is director Dan Gilroy’s wife, Dan’s brother Tony (“The Bourne Legacy”) is a producer, and Dan’s fraternal twin brother John (“Warrior”) is the editor.  

 

 

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