The Crime Scene is His Studio
Local news programming is often a de-contextualized experience of visual trauma. Crime stories offer quick intrigue and highly graphic imagery. They make you afraid in disproportionate ways while taking up disproportionate segments of an incoherent half-hour block. As media theorist Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death, “when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result.” The daily fragmented, carefully catalogued final product remains indentured to the scandalous over the informative.
It’s one of the ugly but familiar conceits of Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy’s thrilling, at times unbalanced, directorial debut. The primary focus is not exactly television news, though it plays heavily into shaping, and often encouraging, the movie’s protagonist Lou Bloom. He’s played by a gaunt Jake Gyllenhaal, first seen exhibiting his skills as a petty thief: cutting down metal fences to re-sell, swiping a watch from a security guard. Eventually his ambitious nights out prowling beneath a spookily rendered Los Angeles find new direction.
After witnessing a fiery car crash, and an ensuing duo of freelance videographers aim their cameras into the bloody flames, Lou’s glossy, bulging eyes brighten. He discovers his new profession. Local news affiliates, he learns, pay good money for film of wrecks, fires, and crime. “If it bleeds it leads,” yells Bill Paxton, a veteran paparazzo uploading his video footage and driving off to his next wreck. The following night, Lou is on the road with a police scanner and camcorder, driving to crime scenes and collecting his own amateur videos.
His first attempts are shaky and abiding to authorities, which slap away his exploitative attempts. But Lou is hardly discouraged. The wiry man, living alone in a small apartment, boasts a strong work ethic and a creepy smile, characteristics that eventually boil into a sociopathic identity. He rapidly learns police codes and just as quickly crosses the ethical boundaries his trade sometimes demands, boundaries often unguarded and unseen in the darkly-lit suburbs Lou stalks. After his footage gets accepted for a few broadcasts at a low-rated station, Lou’s entrepreneurial spirit heightens from nighttime hobby to creepy obsession.
He hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), whom he labels an intern, to navigate the roads while he speeds down boulevards chasing sirens and their lucrative potential. Lou’s growing income allows him upgrades: to his camera, to his car, and to his leverage with the station’s news director Nina (a great Rene Russo). The Tony Robbins advice he preaches to Rick turns into negotiating tactics in the production room, and Lou peddles his talents and unique ability to elude the yellow tape while invading personal limits. Look at the bullet holes in the fridge! “How did you get inside the house?” someone asks him. The question is quickly dismissed. Sometimes Lou arrives before the police, which strays his moral compass further south, dragging bloody bodies into his frame as if staging his own crime scene. He lifts his camera above his head to get the whole shot and a small smile begins to spread across his face.
Gyllenhaal has said he wanted to look like a coyote in this movie, and he looks eternally hungry hunting his prey. He might have passed for one of the real ones that crept the vacant streets in Michael Mann’s nocturnal thriller Collateral, an equally haunting portrait of Los Angeles after dark. Gilroy, who also writes the script, doesn’t dive too much into that movie’s racial politics or chilling stakes but he provides a similar atmosphere. His L.A. is also largely empty. His drama, besides the underground car chases, remains tethered to the TMZ legalities of this kind of work. He takes time to shoot television towers, tilts towards the sky, and zooms in on the neighbor’s satellite dishes. Then he pans the whole valley before dawn, the calm before the mediated storm.
“News is what news directors and journalists say it is,” wrote Postman. According to Nina, her morning news, as she tells Lou, should evoke a “screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut off.” She’s selling urban crime creeping into the suburbs. Anything that remotely fits those parameters warrants the banner headline, dangerous video to start a worried mom’s day. This tilts the playing field when Lou starts bringing her nearly those exact images. “Are we allowed to show this?” Nina asks the station’s legal advisor, who shrugs until it’s show time. It builds to the movie’s most frighteningly delightful scene, a dinner between Nina and Lou that turns into a terrifying set of demands and arbitrations. Lou’s sexual impulses mask his personal attacks about Nina’s need for ratings and Gilroy lets their tension seep into the rest of their corporate transactions. “A friend is a gift you give yourself,” he tells her, which exudes an uneasy authenticity.
The movie sneaks up on you, just like Gyllenhaal, embodying Lou with more special tics, suggesting an intellectual curiosity for a man, and occasionally a movie, that is shallow and superficial. You get the sense Gyllenhaal has found his sweet spot, offering another variation regarding crime scenes and the characters that surround them. He’s mixed his police officer from End of Watch with his dark, determined detective in Prisoners, now becoming a nuisance for authorities, withholding information and becoming an unqualified first responder. The movie isn’t sure if it’s cringing and laughing with Lou or at him.
Nightcrawler builds to one of these larger, legal predicaments, which also often means putting Lou’s accomplice Rick into equal jeopardy. You wonder if their nightly surveillance videos could have been riskier thematically. You wonder what this movie might have been like if it were filmed after this summer, when Ferguson, Missouri came into the mainstream as did strings of home videos capturing police brutality. I’m not sure Gilroy is daring enough yet to explore the racial elements that would surface with that, especially beneath Hollywood’s glow. “Suburb” and “Urban” are as close as he gets here. Doing so would have made some of the movie’s satire a bit sharper, or might have turned it into full-on critique.
We still have an obsession with filming the events in our lives, made more accessible as phones consume our palms and paparazzi shows consume our viewing habits. Gilroy has chosen an insular character study to attack this growing handheld phenomenon. His last screenplay was The Bourne Legacy so you know he’s been trending with issues regarding technology and humanity. It’s only a matter of time until his intimate portraits start becoming focused landscapes. He will start to contextualize. “Just keep shooting,” shouts Lou to Rick at one point. It’s the phrase of a generation that always has their camera ready. They don’t need to yell, “Action!” They’re already recording it.