How far is too far for glory?
For Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), no goal is too great or too illegal to aspire towards. He thrives on people who put results over morality in his quest for the almighty dollar. Lou is a sociopath in his work, but nobody seems to be able to stop him because that work is just too good. He lies to authorities, talks down to others with an unnervingly blank expression, and is just genuinely able to manipulate people, seeming to possess the cheat codes for the world of video journalism. One might assume, based on his initial climb into this career, that Nightcrawler is a rise-and-fall story. The film’s focus, however, is just on the rise—Lou getting away with his deceit.
Why would such a film be worth watching with a character so calculatingly evil? Because it’s a dark satire.
As Lou struggles to gather scrap metal for cash, he becomes intrigued by the sight of a cameraman (Bill Paxton) poking his lens into the scene of a nighttime car crash on the dark road. Lou soon discovers that the man is a freelancer, working as his own boss to supply footage to local news stations. Dazzled by the prospect of such ownership, Lou knows this is exactly what he wants to do with his life. He pawns off a stolen bike to purchase a camera and a police scanner. Armed with these two essential tools, Lou scours the dark streets looking for crimes to shoot. He has competition, however, so his tactics will have to be dirty to get the biggest scoop first.
The station he sells the footage to is a fledgling network whose worn news director, Nina Romina (Rene Russo), is eager for exclusives. She’s as desperate as Lou and, with some coaxing, she begins to turn just as fiendish in her journey to the big leagues. “The bloodier the better” is the mantra she drums into him to keep the crime exclusives coming. Lou takes this information to heart and begins taking extremely dangerous risks. When kept back from the crime scene at a house, for example, he sneaks inside the home to record everything he can.
That’s illegal enough, but Lou knows he can do better. Tracking down patterns in crimes, he soon begins heading to locations either during a violent crime or before it’s about to go down. A family is murdered in their ritzy house and Lou is ready to break inside before the cops even arrive to film all the gory details. It’s a despicable piece of footage too graphic for television, but that just makes it more of a newsworthy invitation rather than a moral objection.
Though Lou is mostly a loner, the up-and-coming cameraman approaches every situation involving other people with a disturbingly calm and analytical mindset. Bill Paxton’s character at one point attempts to hire him; Lou just gives a simple smile as he expresses his huge urge to physically destroy him. Later on, Lou tries to woo Nina into a relationship, but he doesn’t attempt any sweet talk. He coldly states the facts of who he is and why he feels he deserves her as if he were at a job interview. And the tactics he uses to convince an intern to ride along with him as navigation are just so blatantly underhanded and devious you can’t help but laugh when it works.
This is what director Dan Gilroy wants us to see in Nightcrawler. He creates an aquarium of shamelessness you’re compelled to watch—not to see Lou succeed, exactly, but to witness just how low he can go and still get paid. Through the film’s neo-noir lens, we see Lou evade every hurdle with unsettling ease. The FBI come after him when they believe there is crucial evidence he is shooting that is not being provided to law enforcement; Lou wipes his drive of the materials to avoid jail time and continues to track clues to new crimes. When cornered on the price for his grittier footage, he plays hardball, trying to receive bigger checks and have his company name accompany his videos. His luck is also rather astonishing, as his biggest break in the picture leads him through a car chase that ends in a bloody shootout. Great for a shot, but bad for his health.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is perfect as a creepy-faced prowler of the night. The few moments when he breaks that blank stare of focus are for a forced and manipulative smile. He delivers all his dialogue with a calm and straight demeanor, never once attempting to bring truthful emotions into the equations. The only times he does show emotion are in private: He watches the local news and breaks into a genuine laugh when his footage winds up on television. He smashes the mirror of his bathroom in frustration with a terrifying roar when things don’t go exactly his way. This is the real Lou, as opposed to the public one with his mask for doing business.
The dark humor of Nightcrawler comes from the general coldness of its characters. Lou treats others as pawns for his prospects from the position of someone who calls the shots. Nina could say no to such illegal footage and expensive demands, but she’s too deep into this scummy world and realizes that another network would be just as eager to buy Lou’s work. Lou’s intern is so desperate for work that he does his best to push aside all the voices in his head that scream, “This man is insane and you need to leave!” All this desperation breeds tabloid filth, turning the news into more of a bloody circus than an informative source. This is a world where men like Lou don’t end up dying by the sword they live by, but end up getting promotions for their ingenuity over immorality. It’s a far too telling tale of the over-the-top sensationalism in our media culture that winds up being so uncomfortable its dark hilarity.