The many, sometimes sinister and secretive sides of Los Angeles have been a favourite of filmmakers in the past couple of years. Tales of desperation, of searching for meaning and connection in an uncertain climate, whether joining a cult like in Sound of My Voice or robbing the houses of celebrities like in The Bling Ring, LA has become a home to stories of humans wanting to hide and reinvent themselves.
Our latest tale of searching for a personal idea of success comes in the form of Nightcrawler, which has been met with a lot of comparisons to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Drenching the city mostly in darkness, only leaving occasional strips of neon running like a yellow brick road to the KTVLA Studios, Louis (Jake Gyllenhaal)’s Emerald City, Nightcrawler shares an elusive protagonist, excellent car chase scene, and dubious lines of work in the city of contradictions and dark corners to hide in with Refn’s 2011 neo-noir.
However, when the film opens with Lou, desperate for employment, being refused a job, it’s clear that first-time director Dan Gilroy (co-writer of Tarsem’s The Fall)’s film is more invested in providing some observations about our current economic climate and ethics than anything else. Lou Bloom is unable to find a job, any job, despite his 24/7 online ‘training’ in tactics that are supposed to be appealing to employers. He’s become a nocturnal career petty criminal as a result, selling stolen goods at scrap metal yards and sweet-talking himself out of getting arrested, before receding into his claustrophobic blue cave of an apartment to watch another ‘Motivational Speaking 101’ video on YouTube. His obsession has made him into a soulless robot that spouts all the kinds of affirmations that I was taught and promptly rejected as fluffy crap at high school.
He’s a fundamentalist, and his church is self-help books. Going home from an unsuccessful sale one night, he is stuck behind a fiery car crash when he comes across something an amateur film crew filming the crash to sell to local news stations for broadcast. Inspired through their method of self-employment, Lou, through another theft, buys a video camera and police scanner from a pawn shop, and is able to get front-and-center at the scene of a fatal carjacking. His footage catches the eye of Nina (Rene Russo), a news director at local station KTVLA, who tells him to continue his work, pushing him further. She emphasises the need for shock value, saying that her news broadcast is
“Screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut.”
The type of media criticism that Gilroy posits is in the vein of David Fincher and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, of tabloid journalists, witch hunts, and social media, presenting a similar thesis – the pursuit of curiosity and truth has changed. In Nightcrawler, when Lou first witnesses a crime being filmed for television, he sees one of the crew members shout “we’re first!” as they skid onto the scene in their van, grabbing tragedy and the fact that they are allowed and able to be the one that sticks the camera in the victim’s face like a trophy, raising it for all to see before speeding away to deliver their blood-soaked footage. Gilroy cleverly depicts the scenes of crimes and car crashes as they would be through Lou’s eyes, removing the human elements through choosing to not show the faces of the victims, showing what it is like to view blood and grief as a payday and a lifebuoy. When Lou ventures into crime scenes without hesitation, we realise something – our sense of ownership has changed. We are privy to so much more of personal lives, things that were previously private, through photos and social media etc, that we now feel like that it’s our right to venture in and snoop. We have absolved ourselves of responsibility, placed ourselves on pedestals, believing we are above laws and accepted norms of privacy.
Marketed as much more a seriously dramatic thriller, Nightcrawler is surprisingly a satire, which is mostly successful, but poses some issues when it comes to characterisation. As a result of his approach, where there is no hints of traditional depth but instead balls-to-the-wall cartoonifying, the characters, in some scenes, feel as though their full dramatic potential has not been explored. The caricatures that Gilroy creates are sometimes beneficial in the narrative, as they effectively convey the detachment from reality that they feel, subsisting solely on ratings and money, but other times feel shallow and underwhelming. The performances from Gyllenhaal and Russo are equally exceptional. Lou is a product of two things – the internet and the economy. Skeletal and unhinged, Lou is merely a shell, a whole made up of too many YouTube videos and ‘Business for Dummies’ books that shatter when put under pressure, and Gyllenhaal makes him as terrifying as he should be, pulling out all his tics. As Nina, Russo is sure to go down as one of the most overlooked performances of the year, playing a character that is both the venomous snake and, unbeknownst to her, the mouse being eaten by the snake with an electric verve and ferocity.
Lensed by Robert Elswit (frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator) in cold light, metal, and the smell of burning rubber, Nightcrawler, a distinctly 1970s-feeling, heart-pounding film that, while missing opportunities in terms of characterisation and pacing, is well executed and sure to provide more food-for-thought in years to come. On reflection, Gilroy’s exploration of life in the time of disintegrating stable employment and an instant access world gives rise to a question – where does the onus lie? Is it the people capturing the footage, or the ones buying it, begging for more? Not passing judgement on his subject, that is up to you, the resourceful, connected people of the 21st century, to decide.