Dan Gilroy’s debut film, Nightcrawler, is undeniably well made in all its neon-noir slickness. It also has what is quite possibly the best and most intense action sequence I’ve seen all year. And had it been content to function on this level, I might be just as gaga over it as so many critics seem to be. (I kind of doubt that, but I admit the possibility.) Unfortunately, Nightcrawler wants to be more than this. It has designs on being a penetrating satirical commentary on our times and the media. The problem with that is that Nightcrawler’s targets are obvious and its observations shallow. It doesn’t help that Sidney Lumet’s Network covered the same ground 38 years ago — and didn’t limit itself to the underbelly of local TV news. As a sleazy little entertainment about some unpleasant people you wouldn’t want to encounter in real life, though, it’s pretty good.
Jake Gyllenhaal (looking like a greasy, hopped-up Jim Carrey) plays Louis Bloom, a small-time thief with a violent streak. He likes to think he’s “bold, persistent, self-motivating.” In truth, he’s a little sociopathic worm who’s absorbed a bunch of glad-handing corporate-speak (“If you want to win the lottery, you have to work hard to buy a ticket”) he learned from his online reading. This is admittedly kind of clever — especially the use of shopworn corporate phrases — but the problem is that we get all this in the first few minutes of the picture. Yes, his cosmic God-awfulness becomes more outrageous — and increasingly improbable — as the film progresses, but its essence never changes. Louis is always the twitchy, petty hood who beat up a security guard for his watch and made an inept plea for employment at a scrap metal company at the beginning of the movie.
Even Louis’ transition from this character to “nightcrawler” — modern day ambulance chasers whose goal isn’t lawsuits, but graphic “news” footage to peddle to LA television stations — is a stolen idea. He happens to see the established king of this realm (Bill Paxton) at an accident, learns that such footage — especially if it’s graphic (“If it bleeds, it leads”) — is worth money and decides to try it for himself — naturally, by trading a stolen bicycle for a video camera and a Radio Shack police scanner at a pawnshop. Lacking even the most rudimentary sense of ethics, it doesn’t take Louis long to hone his craft and endear himself to content-starved, ratings-mad news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) at a low-rated station.
Nina is, of course, no better than Louis. She’s out to hang on to her job (her contract is up for renewal) and has decided that the best way to do this is by selling her viewers on fear — specifically, fear of a criminal invasion of suburbia by malefactors with darker skin than most of the viewers. Again, this is worthy of exploration on its own merit, but it’s always at the mercy of the film’s focus on the duplicity of the probably psychotic Louis. In fact, any time the movie starts to stray from this case study, it quickly forgets about it. A subplot involving the probable illiteracy of Louis’ underpaid “intern” and whipping boy, Rick (Riz Ahmed) — the only likable character in the movie — is dropped almost as soon as it’s touched on.
As I noted early on, Nightcrawler is efficient — even distastefully entertaining — at being a queasy portrait of the rise of a reprehensible character. (At least, it is if you don’t question how Louis manages to escape any consequences from his aggregation of criminal offenses.) But as a trenchant commentary on media and media watchers in the age of TMZ and Fox News, it’s lightweight stuff that may well be little better than its targets. Rated R for violence, graphic images and language.