Ethics and journalism may seem incongruous bedfellows in the 21st century. Names like Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate, Herr, Talese and Didion, Murrow and McCarthyism don’t stand for much these days; today more and more real journalists are being sidelined and sacked while websites filled with ‘citizen journalists’ distract readers with inane lists about celebrity body parts and commercial television news broadcasters continue to favour the quick and visceral over the in-depth and complex in a race to the bottom for ratings.
Into this landscape of sensationalism comes Nightcrawler, the darkly comic film debut from Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gilroy. Creepy, tense, engaging, and questioning, Nightcrawler lampoons the ethics of modern journalism while also providing the audience with a unique lens with which to perceive contemporary American society.
Nightcrawler follows Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom in a performance that transforms Gyllenhaal from Hollywood leading man to sunken-cheeked, swollen eyed opportunist. If Tony Robbins and Hannibal Lecter had a love child it might look and sound something like Gyllenhaal’s Bloom; equal parts slimy used-car-salesman, neurotic Angeleno, self-help guru, and explosive Travis Bickle; Bloom has no empathy and little conscience as he bullies, cajoles, impresses, and even breaks the law, to get what he wants.
When we first meet Bloom he is selling stolen fencing wire and manhole covers for scrap, trying to make ends meet in the seedy underbelly of nighttime Los Angeles. Gilroy has some interesting things to say about the disenfranchisement and desperation faced by American youth, an issue he explores with some fantastic characters, foremost among them is Riz Ahmed’s Rick, homeless and directionless, he allows Bloom to inveigle him into his service as Bloom’s navigator and second camera unit. Theirs is a relationship that is fascinating to watch evolve as Rick gets swept away in Bloom’s escalating criminality by the promise of escalating rewards.
After failing to convince the scrapyard owner to give him a job Bloom passes a flaming car wreck on the side of the freeway and pulls over to investigate. Hot on his heels is ‘nightcrawler’ crime videographer Joe Loder, played by veteran actor Bill Paxton, who offers Bloom the sage advice that ‘if it bleeds it leads’, a warm welcome to the world of the nightcrawlers and their no-holds-barred attitude to so-called journalism. Nightcrawlers are bottom feeding parasites who film the nastiest accidents and incidences of violence for the pleasure of the modern Colosseum that is the morning news.
As James Joyce’s Ulysses had Leopold so too does Nightcrawler have Lou. Like Leo, Lou traverses a city, the city of Los Angeles, standing in here for Leo’s Dublin, not on foot but in a motorcar, frantically dissecting the police scanner for the best possible lead on a story upon which to build his nascent videography career. Bloom gets lucky with his cheap Sony camcorder capturing a carjacking gone wrong in lurid detail and with the help of fading producer Nina Romina, Rene Russo, gets his first piece of footage on the air.
What follows is Bloom’s ascent (or descent rather) into the world of shock-horror journalism, filming a string of homicides and car accidents for stories colourfully entitled; ‘Horror in Echo Park’, ‘Toddler Stabbed’, and ‘Nursing Home Nightmare’. Bloom is a character who has no scruples, no sense of ethics, journalistic or otherwise, he is not afraid to move a corpse in order to get the perfect shot, and worse. Russo’s Romina is the performance of her career and the chemistry she shares with Gyllenhaal is remarkably icky.
The L.A. of Nightcrawler is ripped straight out of a James Ellroy novel; dark strip malls and massive mansions, the only light coming from neon signs and the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. The darkness is an accomplice in the film, allowing creatures of the night like Bloom and Loder to carry out their shifty work in the underworld so Los Angeles can wake up to bloodshed with their morning muesli.
Nightcrawler is an excellent look at the worst kind of journalism, darkly comic, smart and exceptionally well-written, the film builds from quieter beginnings to a truly intense finale that will have your palms sweaty with excitement and anticipation. If you want to take a ride through the dark side of contemporary L.A. then Nightcrawler is your ticket to the underworld.
Review by Liam Kinkead