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Film Review: Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler (2014; Directed by Dan Gilroy)

When we first meet Lou Bloom, he’s already transgressing the bounds of the law, stealing scrap metal for resale and roughing up a security watchman who catches him in the act to affect his escape. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal in his gaunt and driven obsessive mode, Lou Bloom haunts the nocturnal streets of Los Angeles much as his homonymic counterpart in James Joyce’s Ulysses wanders Dublin’s sidewalks, but with darker, creepier, and greedier intent.

Lou is a man on the make, however he can make it. Confident and nonplussed by criticism or dismissal, he’s an internet-empowered autodidact who speaks in business-speak clichés and structures his every utterance, even his threats (which are not unplentiful), as zippy taglines from self-actualization seminars. His introduction as a brazen but resourceful thief in Nightcrawler establishes that his self-advancement will not be constrained by legal or moral imperatives, and the subsequent events of the film demonstrate that he will not be constrained by the weakness of human sympathy either.

Happening upon a fiery car crash while cruising one of the metropolis’ arterial freeways, Lou Bloom also happens upon his calling. A freelance videographer (Bill Paxton) pulls up moments after Bloom’s rubbernecking arrival in a tech-laden van to film the carnage and the dramatic rescue attempt as it happens with the intention of selling the footage to the local television news. The videographer, Joe Loder, is brusque with the curious Bloom but reveals just enough of his trade to pique his interrogator’s interest. Bloom pawns a stolen bike for just enough cash to get himself a camcorder and a police scanner. Bold and heedless of risk, he gets closer than Loder will to a bleeding carjacking victim and his graphic video is snapped up by TV news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo).

Bloom’s night missions on the prowl for newsworthy human wreckage bear more and more fruit with Nina, and he’s soon able to expand, hiring a homeless young man named Rick (Riz Ahmed) as an assistant and eventually upgrading his technical capabilities and his wheels. Stalking L.A.’s dark, coldly-lit streets in a brash red Dodge Challenger, Bloom and Rick launch into action at the first scanner sign of a LAPD code for serious collisions, fires, assaults, and even murders, hoping to beat Loder and any other competitors (even first responders) to the scene to score the best footage possible.

Bloom, whose scruples are basically non-existent, underpays Rick and bullies him authoritatively, bristles competitively at interactions with Loder, and leverages anything he can think of with Nina for better paydays, more credit and privileges with the TV station, and even more intimate favours. His amorality creeps ever more insistently into his work as well, as he intrudes on crime scenes, arranging them to improve the framing of his shots and strengthen his images of alarm. When he arrives at an active home invasion and murder scene before the police do – indeed, before the perpetrators have even fled – Bloom will carefully walk the perilous knife edge between professional triumph and heinous criminality.

Nightcrawler is writer/director Dan Gilroy’s feature debut, and it heralds a major new talent blazing a trail of artistic bravura amid a swirl of potent metaphorical and social themes. Lou Bloom’s morally compromised and victim-strewn rise in the freelance video world taps the myths of self-made American entrepreneurial spirit while engaging fully with the inherent dark and sociopathic exploitative side of that spirit that is frequently glossed over in favour of Gatsbyesque romanticism. The film also provides a firm and specific indictment of television news’ role in whipping up popular hysteria over crime. One might have thought that this hoary old canard about television news was played out, but Gilroy enervates it with pointed (if merely sketched) socioeconomic connections.

Nina emphasizes her station’s abiding interest in incidents of crime trespassing into affluent “safe” neighbourhoods, and in one riveting sequence she coaches her news anchors’ verbal commentary on a shocking video of just such a crime from Bloom, prompting their strokes of sensationalism. These kinds of stories presented in such a way attract more viewers, but also foment inaccurate and unhealthy impressions of violent urban crime on the rise and “creeping into the suburbs”, as she puts it. Inaccurate because crime rates in American cities have been falling steadily for decades, despite the excitable coverage of specific shocking crimes in the news; unhealthy because the establishment of such impressions widens income gaps, fosters ghettoization and suburban flight, and underlies the maintenance of a disproportionately severe criminal justice and incarceration system whose sheer size, minority-tilted focus, and profit-driven growth are becoming a burden ever-harder to ignore for the country as a whole.

Gilroy doesn’t gesture towards any of this in Nightcrawler, but neither does he shy away from the truth of the exploitative inhumanity of Bloom and his collaborators. But his film, so beautifully and strikingly shot, with one of the most riveting car chase sequences in recent movie history at its climax (the film glamorizes America’s car culture while also wading knee-deep through the twisted destruction that consumes so many of its citizens), is also subtly about the Big Lie of the cinema. What sets Bloom apart from Loder, who shoots a lot of the same material as he does at the same time, is not merely his willingness to push the envelope, to zoom in to oozing gunshot wounds or burning auto wreckage. It’s also his aestheticization of the mayhem, the way he shoots it with the artist’s eye for utilizing images to embed and then to detonate explosive ideas in the viewer’s mind.

An important turning point for Bloom is when he comes across a collision scene and shifts a victim’s body into the glare of the vehicle’s headlights. He’s arranging his shot for maximum aesthetic effect, like a director or a cinematographer or a painter. His later manipulations of dangerously active criminal situations are simply extensions of this mise en scène. Bloom directs scenarios as if he’s making a fictional action movie, only this one involves real people, real bullets, real deaths. Lou Bloom is sociopathic enough that he doesn’t require the mediating filter of the camera to remove himself from the consequences of what he films, but the power and undeniability of the images he captures have a pull and momentum that makes them irresistible, especially to his clients in TV news who ought to know better than to take them at face value.

Nightcrawler is strangely reminiscent (or at least productively comparable) in this way of a wildly different film, E. Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire. A fictionalized narrative of the making of F.W. Murnau’s German silent film classic Nosferatu that imagines that the vampire in the film was played by a real undead bloodsucker (played in turn by Willem Defoe), its memorable closing scene features Murnau (John Malkovich) obsessively filming the vampire’s deadly rampage among his film crew. His dedication to achieving the eternal perfection of the cinematic image recognizes no moral tenet, no human compromise. Murnau is as vampiric as the monstrous Count Orlok, consuming blood and running it through his camera lens in order to effect his immortality. Lou Bloom’s dedication is of a similarly vampiric character, but is even more multifarious, encompassing elements of American capitalism from filmmaking to technology to media to crime to the law. His nocturnal success is less long-lasting than Murnau’s but just as deep and much more suggestive of the operations of a whole array of exploitative structures at the heart of contemporary American society.

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