When setting the scene, most movies give us the so called ‘save the cat’ moment to endear the protagonist to us, so that as they make questionable choices down the line, we know deep inside that we need to keep rooting for them.
Nightcrawler kicks off with the antithesis - a ‘kill the cat’ if you will, a reminder that despite his occasional disarming charm, we are definitely dealing with a despicable piece of work in Jake Gyllenhall’s Louis Bloom.
Looking for a career he can really get his teeth into, Bloom falls into ‘nightcrawling’, the ambulance-chasing side of news gathering. Night-after-night, Bloom heads out into the Collateral-esque LA nightscape to film fresh accidents and/or crimes. If it bleeds, it leads, and the early bird catches the money shot.
Desperate for ratings, local news director Nina (Rene Russo) mentors his development and uses his nightly offerings to build a distortive crime-wave narrative to strike fear in to the heart of affluent, white LA neighbourhoods. Unchecked by hindrances like empathy or compassion, Bloom’s cut-throat careerism skyrockets him and Nina to success.
Wide-eyed, confident and gaunt, Bloom talks almost purely in management jargon and navigates relationships quickly to find weaknesses, getting people over a barrel to quickly manipulate and extort his way to the top. The sheer incredulity of his demands on everyone provide many dark laughs, especially when he is successful in getting what he wants, which is most of the time.
But there’s no controversy here. No glorification. We aren’t short of side characters, from newsies to cops, to remind us that Louis and Nina are bereft of anything resembling humanity. The real heart of the film is Riz Ahmed (Four Lions) as Bloom’s assistant, Rick. He’s poorly paid and treated worse, and his timid, nervous struggles with the moral quagmire posed by Bloom’s increasing demands are what allow us to get inside the story.
Gyllenhall proves an astounding range by swinging between handsome leading men and menaces like Bloom. This is probably the most interesting and nuanced performance of his career. Russo’s delivery is much more subtle as tough but over-the-hill news director Nina, able to communicate disgust and admiration for Bloom all at the same time.
Obvious touchstones for Nightcrawler are the likes of The Wolf of, and just plain old, Wall Street, with a side order of Taxi Driver. But unlike Belfort, Gecko or Bickle, Bloom isn’t designed to be accessible or relatable. He’ll be no posterboy for the news media, like Gordon Gecko was for bankers. There are no redeeming qualities under his superficial charm and apparent psychopathy. Surprises come by learning how far he’ll go to sidestep nuisances, such as the law, in the name of success. The survival of the heartless.
It also makes a great videographic companion piece to this year’s Gone Girl, dealing too with the construction of narrative and how stories are designed to benefit the teller, not their audience.
For a measly 8.5 million bucks, director Dan Gilroy (Russo’s husband, don’t-ya-know) has made an exceptional subversion of the American dream and indictment of the media and of corporate culture.
So, fear the ambitious and beware your boss…oh, and don’t kill the cat.
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