Nov 18, 2014
A business manual masquerading as a horror thriller. I was not fully convinced by this heavy handed movie written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Jake Gyllenhaal, creepily funny, stars as Lou Bloom, a petty Los Angeles thief that happens upon an accident on the freeway late at night and finds his calling. There are professional outfits who sell footage of human misfortune to local TV stations for their newscasts and Lou is nothing if not an entrepreneurial young man. Apparently, he's been memorizing how to succeed in business screeds and now he wants to start his own crime video company. The connection between the entrepreneurial spirit and sociopathy has been amply documented. Some of the most ambitious captains of industry tend to be sociopaths. This may explain their indifference to human suffering as they create subprime mortgages, or decimate San Francisco with startups. This is the most fun idea in Nightcrawler.
Leo is one driven fireball of ambition, but as a bona fide sociopath he really does not work well with others. He is a loner who irons his shirts and he talks a good game but has a hard time fooling people. He's just too enthusiastic. He repeats business mantras like a parrot, with a creepy manufactured tenacity that belies his utter indifference and alienation from his fellow humans. Gyllenhaal gives it his all. His Lou is feverishly convinced of his own enterprise, and he is very funny at the exhausting sincerity of the guy. He's always smiling, as if he realizes that this is a necessary condition for communicating with others, but doesn't really know what smiles are for.
The problem is that Gilroy does not allow for nuance. There is never a hint of self-doubt, or self-hatred or introspection in Lou. His best moments are tiny shifts when we get a glimpse into Lou's reservoir of nastiness. He is calculating and manipulative, and increasingly ruthless, but in one good scene with his rival (an oily Bill Paxton), he shows how hard he works to control the violent anger boiling under the surface. In contrast to photographers like Weegee or Enrique Metinides, who covered the crime blotter for newspapers, Leo has a good eye, but he is not an artist. He is a vulture who gets a thrill at prying on people's distress and even more at his own manipulation of the imagery. It never crosses his mind to help.
The more savage and morbid his footage, the more money the boss at the local TV station (Rene Russo) throws at him. Russo is great, but she is also saddled with an unconvincing part. I can believe she doesn't want to lose her job and I can believe she has little moral compass, but I cannot believe she is such an easy prey to Lou, who radiates "creep". You may say it takes one to know one, but I didn't buy the intimation that he may have succeeded in bringing her to her knees. And this is one of the problems of the movie, that Lou has no real antagonist. Anybody with the slightest qualm is timidly peripheral, or opposes little resistance. Lou hires Rick (Riz Ahmed), a homeless and hapless young man, as a copilot. Rick is Lou's opposite, he has zero ambition, and a conscience, but apparently nobody can put a dent on Lou's dreams of success. Any kind of dent would have been interesting to watch, because Lou's shtick becomes repetitive.
Nightcrawler works better as an extremely dark satire about a psycho entrepreneur who successfully grows his business, than as a nail biting thriller. There are funny stabs at the inanity of live news coverage, with actual anchors sending themselves up as clueless interpreters of what they are watching. An inside joke to Angelenos is the justified rage Lou unleashes when Rick makes him take the wrong freeway, complete with a rant about exactly what order of freeway to take, reminiscent of the SNL skit "The Californians".
Gilroy has a couple of good moments of tension, but this is not a movie that takes you to the edge of your seat. Nor does he dwell on atmosphere in late night L.A. I would have liked to see who else creeps out of the woodwork in this town, but Gilroy keeps it generic, and is more interested in well choreographed high speed chases than in the heart of darkness. As Leo is patently singleminded, you know where everything is going, and unnecessary lines like "perhaps it's not that I don't understand people, it's that I don't like them", don't help. The moment when Lou slides from petty crime to something more revolting is chilling and well handled, but the movie seems to stack the deck too much on making a point about the unopposed drive of ruthless ambition. Without true opposition, internal or external, Lou Bloom's story is not that interesting.