When we first meet Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) we learn quickly that he is a scavenger and a liar. He is also a positive thinker with a level of self-belief that seems ridiculous given his shabby vehicle and lack of employment. Lou lives in Los Angeles; his go-getter personality, his use of business jargon and self-help buzz-words, hardly make him unique in this environment. A “hustler” would be a polite description for him, although “con man” would also fit. Lou would flatly deny these labels. He spends much of his time alone reading a wide range of material for his self-improvement. He believes the American Dream is his for the taking and he wants to be prepared.
A series of events brings him in contact with a free-lance news gatherer (Bill Paxton) who videos vehicle accidents, shootings, muggings and indeed anything criminal and violent that might happen in the city after the sun goes down. There are a handful of these hard-nosed characters who spend every night sitting in their car monitoring the police channels hoping to catch the beginnings of a juicy news story. Their job is to be first on the scene to capture images of the crime, grab eye-witness interviews and then sell the video package to television.
Lou has a lucky break and finds himself negotiating to sell some video to a struggling local station. The news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is impressed with his work. From this point on, Lou has decisions to make about how he can make an impact on this profession. He applies himself to the task of getting the best pictures of the worst crime stories. He is aided in his quest by having very little empathy for others.
NIGHTCRAWLER is a jittery crime drama about how the news is made. Just as we are warned against investigating how the butcher makes sausage, it turns out that what goes into a certain type of news is every bit as disturbing as what goes into your breakfast snag. The stations are still guided by the old adage, “If it bleeds it leads.” However, In this cut-throat market there is a hierarchy of crime and violence that dictates how much a video package can sell for. As Nina explains to Lou, nothing pays better than a story about a violent crime against white people in a wealthy neighbourhood.
Lou has no idea what makes other people tick and much of the fascination of this movie is seeing him interact with others. We also want to know how far he is prepared to go in pursuit of a story. The script, written by director Dan Gilroy, is relentless in making its points about the unethical behaviour that under-pins contemporary news-making. The movie also says the expected things about the buzz an audience looks for in reports on true crime. It dramatises the process of manufacturing fear and strongly suggests that a frightened audience is a captive one.
Jake Gyllenhaal dropped weight for the role and looks appropriately haggard and disturbed as Lou Bloom. Some have called his performance one-note, yet I found his character brilliantly repellent and engaging. Gyllenhaal is usually at his best when channelling his inner weirdness, despite Hollywood’s desire for him to be merely handsome in non-challenging tripe. The movie also gives Russo’s one of her better roles. Nina seems to have discarded her ethics some time ago, but Lou Bloom’s actions challenge her to examine what she believes in.
NIGHTCRAWLER is a melodrama with a satirical mission and a surprisingly light touch given the voyeuristic bloodiness on offer. It is playing in Australian cinemas now and runs for 117 minutes. I give it a rating of 8/10.