The famous Citizen Kane quote "It’s no trick to make a lot of money, if what you want to do is make a lot of money" has never been truer now, over 70 years after its production. America’s always been shameless about its love for capitalism, but what we have now is a monster out of control, where sociopathic parasites who lack everything but drive and hunger are the ones who are celebrated as true success stories. A profound lack of morals, ethics, and most importantly empathy, is what really propels such people to the head of the pack.
With the gap in income equality expanding to insane levels where the richest 85 people in the world own more than the bottom three billion (Yes, billion with a "b") and the fact that those are the same people who control any government that can impose any regulation that would make it harder for any personification of greed to practically destroy the lives of the little people, the hopelessness of the situation has eventually leaked over to art and entertainment.
It’s no wonder that as far as critiques of greed in American cinema is concerned the gloves have been coming off recently. At least in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street we had a couple of relatable characters who attempted to regain their humanity by doing the right thing. More recent films like There Will Be Blood and The Wolf of Wall Street are not as kind to their protagonists, portraying them as sociopaths and parasites who are more than willing to eat the system from the inside out for their own benefits. Hollywood has always reflected the zeitgeist of the time, and according to these films, our anger has gone beyond the boiling point, we have nothing but hate and bile to offer to these creatures, and rightfully so.
Nightcrawler tells the story of such a "tale of success", as the extremely creepy yet smart and calculating loner Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhall in a performance so effectively off-putting, that you’re going to crave a shower afterwards) takes up crime journalism and becomes an overnight success due to his ability to eliminate all compassion for the victims while capturing the gory money shots for the fear mongering local morning news.
When we first meet Louis, he’s a thief desperate to make some sort of a legitimate living. I don’t think his motive is to go straight for moral reasons, but to eventually gain the respect of his peers as an expert in whatever career he plans to excel at while still being able to pretty much get away with whatever he wants. One night, his fascination with the bloody details of an accident scene leads him to pursue crime journalism, following police scanners and showing up at the site of crimes in order to capture the gory details.
Eventually, Louis’ willingness to push the camera into the faces of bloodied victims and break into crime scenes in order to capture authentic shots of violence attracts the attention of a local morning news show and especially its desperate-for-ratings producer Nina (Rene Russo), who non-chalantly advises Louis to go after crimes where poor people of color assault or kill affluent white citizens. As Louis’ star as a nighttime news predator rises, he begins to blur the line between merely reporting the crime and creating it.
Jake Gyllenhaal becomes lost in the role as he gives an Oscar-worthy performance, creating a character who’s genuinely unsettling. As it is with many Hollywood transformations, the weight he lost for the role has become the focal point in the press, but it’s the inherent lack of humanity behind Louis’ eyes that makes him a memorable character.
Even though he’s frustratingly cordial, soft-spoken and every word that comes out of his mouth is carefully coordinated and calculated like the product of a soulless machine, the tension in every frame he appears in is palpable. There’s only a single scene where he loses his cool, which turns out to be the only superfluous sequence in a film that lacks any fat. It’s unnecessary because as the audience, we can always sense the violence bubbling under his every word anyway.
As far as Rene Russo’s casting is concerned, of course we can expect the go-to snark from many critics to be "Director casts his once-relevant actress wife in a lead role. Yay nepotism!" That would undermine the fact that she fits the role like a blood-soaked glove.
Her character represents the flip side to Louis’ coin, hiding behind the "credibility" of network news while thirsting unashamedly for innocent blood. This part could have been cast with a younger actress in order to bring in the always-desirable 18-30 demographic, but Russo proves to be the perfect choice to capture the moral and psychological exhaustion of such a person.
As a creepy insomniac loner who prowls the nights of a crime-filled, socioeconomically diverse metropolitan city (Los Angeles), the immediate comparison any film buff will come up with will be Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. However, for Bickle, it was his strict morals against a world lacking any that drove him further into madness. For Louis, it’s his lack of any morals that drives him to the depressing yet inevitable climax. In that sense, he has a lot more in common with Daniel Plainview and Jordan Belfort.
Writer/director Dan Gilroy was an established screenwriter for twenty years before executing such an excellent directorial debut, just like his older brother Tony was when he helmed the best film of 2007 as his first project as writer/director, Michael Clayton. Let’s hope that Dan’s directing career moving forward will be less soul-crushingly mediocre than Tony’s turned out to be (Be honest, do you even remember Duplicity or The Bourne Legacy?).
On top of a more-than-welcome Michael Mann feel he infuses every nighttime scene with, Gilroy also presents a couple of brutal yet memorable set pieces. An excellently choreographed car chase was more kinetic and exciting than anything found in the bloated and useless Fast & Furious products.
Nightcrawler is a brutally honest and spot-on examination of the legitimately grimy and sleazy state of shameless media fear mongering and its exploitation of pain and misery. There were many ways this project could have derailed into either schlock or didactic moral grandstanding but it never falters from its focus. It can be off-putting and even uncomfortable sometimes, but it’s also as gripping and as real as it can get.