directed by Dan Gilroy
(Open Road, 2014)

People (like me) who have comic books on the brain can be forgiven for thinking -- at first -- that the title of the film is a reference to Marvel's mutant hero Nightcrawler. It's actually not about comic-book heroes at all, but about tabloid news. Which is even better. PS: Renee Russo is a national treasure.

This dark, unsettling satire is Jake Gyllenhaal's film start to finish, his best performance since Brokeback Mountain. Nightcrawler doesn't have a very big point to make: "If it bleeds it leads" news is no big thing, especially in the age of camera phones, when anyone can be the paparazzi. That newsmongers care more about the story than the facts is nothing new, but thankfully that rather weak point is not where the movie invests itself. Nightcrawler is more of a jumping-off point for a screen performance so intense it lifts the material to the level of genius. It's that haunted, that ghoulish, that mesmerizing.

Louis Bloom is an unemployed go-getter -- and a murderous, lying, cheating thief -- who discovers the world of "night crawlers," people who follow accidents and disasters and sell the filmed footage to news stations. It's as pathetic as it sounds but it makes dollar signs appear in Louis's eyes. And most of the movie is actually about what happens behind those eyes. Intelligent and ruthless, Bloom is either a sociopath or the New America or both as he plots with cold logic to get to the top as fast as he can.

Gyllenhaal melds with his role so much it's as though he has completely disappeared into it, much like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. His excellent performance is made more chilling by the fact that the audience is perhaps the only one who can see through him. With his wolfish grin and burning stare, Bloom is easily dismissed by others as a nut job. Until it's too late, of course, when they realize that they've made a bargain with the devil.

Front and center throughout is the unease. Nightcrawler could easily be a horror movie for all the human horrors it showcases. There are pretty much no depths to which Bloom will not go in order to get a story, even if he has to create one. It hardly matters: the American public has known for the longest time that journalistic integrity and morality have parted ways. The extreme nature of the news and the massive hunger for bloodthirsty content breeds ghouls like Bloom, who only believe that they are "hard workers" who "set high goals." The connection between the arachnid Bloom and his web of quirks, obsessions and deadly charm, and the poisonous environment in which he thrives -- indeed, which practically created him -- is never clearer.

The film's greatest weakness is its lack of more screen time for the cast's magnificent supporting characters. Russo really anchors the theme as an aging news director desperate for news. She's no less ruthless than the scavenging videographers, and is perhaps as morally bankrupt as Bloom when it comes to surviving in a post-modern, post-austere world.

The production values are as classy as the subject is dark, another neat self-reflective touch that draws the viewer further in, fascinated, to a world that has little but contempt for that which observes it. Achingly beautiful widescreen shots describe horrible situations; long, steady-cam tracking shots follow the characters through narrow corridors, shadowy highways and crazy car chases. Everything is a mix of light and shadow, while remaining in high focus. The dialogue is as sharp and witty as any Tarantino film, portraying the characters' complex morality, reflected in the frozen, neon-lit, nighttime world through which they pick like vultures. Nightcrawler is an example of a film that uses its production values to articulate its points, and it does so brilliantly.

The gutsy way director Dan Gilroy ends this movie may not be what some viewers like, but it's perfect for the moral and the message. Gyllenhaal is the perfect anti-hero. Is Bloom an artist or a sociopath? Creator of sleaze, or unable to rise above it? It's hard to tell in a culture that is slowly darkening and hence blurring the lines of good sense as well as perception. And in a cleverness that makes up for its rather transparent points about bloodthirsty society, the story refuses to allow we the viewers to keep from rising up from that same sleaze to get to that necessary plateau of morality -- read "clarity" -- that would allow us to make the necessary judgment. It's not likable, it's not supposed to be, but it's true. The only real deceit is our own selfish hunger.

review by
Mary Harvey

10 January 2015

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