There’s always been a slightly uncomfortable relationship between the voyeuristic viewer and the pandering filmmaker, whether it’s highbrow cinema, big-budget television, crass pornography or the nightly TV news. During the Vietnam War, the great debate was whether to show the bodies of soldiers killed in the conflict on television, but in our collective zeal for that which is salacious we’ve made that question quaint and dated: now the modern TV news watchword is “if it bleeds, it leads.”
In Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a drifter, loser and petty thief, and when he stumbles into the voyeuristic world of independent video news stringers, he’s hooked. It’s perfect for his skills and strengths: he’s brilliant, manipulative, and completely amoral. Los Angeles TV news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is the real villain of the film, however, as she exploits Bloom’s newfound fascination by buying and airing his most gruesome and grisly footage. Her only question before including it in the nightly news is “will we get sued?”
Nightcrawler is a dark film about the seamy underbelly of American culture that challenges us to look in the mirror and ask if we are part of the problem, if we are drawn to blood and hooked on fear, if we are the audience who watches the footage Bloom sells to Romina.
In its cynicism, Nightcrawler is similar to the HBO series The Newsroom, with its similarly dark view of the manipulation inherent in a system that must filter hundreds of stories to determine which should “lead” the show. We’d like to think that decision is predicated on what’s most important but there’s a certain inevitability that the final decision is frequently instead made based on ratings.
Bloom is also an entirely unlikeable character, a remarkable performance by Gyllenhaal. Every time we see him soften, as in a dinner date he has with Romina, we are then forcibly reminded that it too is part of his manipulation of those around him. He’s also completely without morals and thinks nothing of putting his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) at risk of bodily harm to get the footage he wants. Heck, he threatens to beat Rick if he doesn’t capture footage from a crime-in-progress scene.
The film taps a common trope in this ambulance chaser genre when Bloom begins to rearrange crime scenes to make them more photogenic, first magnets on a fridge, then a body partially exposed at a car crash, but it’s done in a believable way. Still, there’s a certain inevitability about the ending and the lack of comeuppance that’s so common in modern Hollywood cinema. One of the few weaknesses in this powerful movie.
I didn’t think I’d like Nightcrawler, but found it compelling, in the same way that we all tend to slow down and “rubberneck” at the scene of an accident, even as our inner voice extolls us to just move along quietly. The performances were excellent, including a particularly good turn by Bill Paxton as competing news stringer Joe Loder, the city of Los Angeles was presented in a remarkably evenhanded way, and the film leaves thoughtful viewers with some unsettling questions about how much we feed into the grisly, salacious world of TV news. Recommended.