The best scene in Nightcrawler is really the metatextual continuation of an earlier one. After having arrived at the scene of a home invasion just in time to witness its perpetrators leaving, and subsequently filmed his way into the corpse-ridden home, unscrupulous freelance reporter Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) sells his gruesome footage to desperate local TV boss Nina Romina (Rene Russo), who subsequently has it played live on evening news. As Nina sends sharp instructions to her anchors via earpieces, the viewer sees Lou's footage again through a screen in front of her, this time with additional shots that dwell longer on the bloodied corpse of a woman in her bra lying face-down on her bed. Another notable addition is the pixellation of both the corpses’ faces and injuries, a move that would normally come across as an ostensible attempt at showing respect for both the deceased’s identities and their audience's sensibilities but which has the chilling effect of depersonalizing them and makes the footage seem all the more unreal. When the images the viewer is (re)discovering aren’t occupying the entire frame, they’re shown on the aforementioned screen, coexisting next to another screen in which the anchors comment on them in real time. The scene’s provocative nature reaches its climax when a baby’s crib appears in the shot: Quickly evacuated after a brief moment of suspense in the original scene, the revelation of its emptiness is built up with anxious comments from the anchors, pressed by Nina’s insistent demands for them to emphasize the horror of the situation. As the viewers know the crib is empty and know Nina knows, they perceive her instructions and the reactions from her anchors as redundant. Through Nina’s blatant act of manipulation, it’s the very concept of suspense and direction that are being exposed and questioned by writer/director Dan Gilroy.
As originally filmed and edited, the crime scene’s point-of-view shots showed just enough blood and corpses to get the horror across and would either pan away or cut to wider shots of Lou filming and moving just in time to avoid complacency with him. Here, the framing and overt attempts at censorship expose his gory close-ups for the obscene voyeurism that they are. It’s an important scene in a film that constantly walks a delicate line between demonstration and exploitation. Sensationalist tabloid journalism appeals to us for the same reasons thrillers do, to the point where they frequently inspire each other: They both tap into a part of our brain that wants to be frightened and excited, to be shocked out of contentment and be reminded how horrible people can be to each other and how dangerous the world can be. The best thrillers use these sensations and settings as a framework within which human psychology and/or socio-political issues as well as artistic ones may be studied.
Nightcrawler is one such thriller, though the term thriller does not accurately represent its richness. It would be perhaps best described as a social horror film in which spectatorial habits are affirmed before being slyly challenged, almost sucker-punch-like, without seeming to break away from the film’s general tone. At the very least Gilroy does not lose sight of the risks he is permanently taking, as evidenced by a climactic car chase involving Lou’s car, a criminal’s car and several police cars he has set against it. Alternating between exterior shots, interior shots from Lou’s car and subjective shots representing the point of view of his unfortunate assistant Rick (a self-effacingly wonderful Riz Ahmed) and his camera, Gilroy and his brother/editor John Gilroy compose a primer on how to make an action scene exciting and readable with short and often tight shots, while at the same time reminding us of the difference between the excitement of a passive distant spectator and that of an active present one.
As played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Lou is as monstrous as people come without blatantly telegraphing their nature. Though his constantly alert and rarely-blinking eyes seem at times too large to fit his thin face, it’s his excessively well-spoken politeness that gets under your skin; whenever faced with opposition or an opportunity to get something he wants out of someone, he tends to go into lengthy and verbose speeches that could have been lifted straight out of a manual but whose delivery balances earnestness and conviction with too much precision for them to sound blatantly rehearsed. Given Lou’s absence of social life outside his “work” and own admission of spending most of his free time on his computer, one could easily imagine he lifted much of his dialogue from online self-help articles. What Jake Gyllenhaal pulls off is an exceptional mise en abyme of acting itself that manages to make Lou’s general intentions quite plain, yet make the more subtle underlying feelings and desires so hard to detect that it’s not even clear whether or not he has any. It’s as ambiguous as a portrayal of an unambiguously evil character can get.
Sensationalist television reporting being most of the plot’s motor, many critics and viewers were prompt to compare Nightcrawler to Sidney Lumet’s prophetic-yet-overrated 1976 screamfest Network. The comparison is misguided; it is not the world of television itself that is under critical examination here but rather the myth of the American self-made man – particularly when applied in these economically difficult times – and the human desire for entertainment that gives such bad television (and cinema) popular in the first place. In that respect, it is perhaps closer to Rear Window. The shot of Lou pointing his camera at an armed criminal just after having used him to get juicy murder footage may not be as profound as the many shot/countershots in Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark work, but it’s a singularly striking visual evocation of the potent power of the camera.
It would be perhaps more accurate to call Nightcrawler the flipside to Gus Van Sant’s To Die For. Whereas Suzanne Stone Maretto firmly believed that “you’re not anybody in America unless you’re on TV”, Lou performs off-screen and under the radar, and makes his intention to stay behind the camera quite plain. What he wants is professional success, and the unmitigated accomplishment of all his immediate and distant desires, as he expresses quite explicitly during a pressured dinner date with Nina in the film’s most terrifying scene. Faced with sexual coercion and extortion the forthrightness of which is made all the more disturbing by the insistently relaxed and affable tone that carries it, Nina’s composure becomes like that of a cornered lioness looking for a way to turn the situation back to her advantage without betraying too much fear. It’s a role in which Rene Russo reveals unexpected depth and multivalence that put the otherwise great Faye Dunaway’s hammy histrionics in Network to shame.
Nightcrawler is certainly not the first film to cast a critical and self-reflexive eye on the lethality of visual media – Peeping Tom, Lost Highway, Caché and Shadow Of The Vampire are but some of its most illustrious predecessors – but it is rare to see a film put its genre and associated moods and tones to such effective and intelligent use in doing so. It is even rarer to see performances within such a film as complex as those delivered by Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal.