“There’s nothing I’d ask you to do that I wouldn’t do myself”

There is a scene in Nightcrawler where Jake Gyllenhaal‘s gaunt and greasy Lou Bloom slams shut his bathroom cabinet, smashing the mirror in the process, then screams like a wounded animal, his face contorted by frustrated rage, after being slapped down in a business deal.

But you know and he knows that he will not allow himself to be defeated in the longer run, which success is used to illustrate several key themes in this finely sculpted and enthralling new movie: motivation and the ruthless amorality resulting from the character’s lust for success; the subtle process of negotiation and the power struggle that underpins the rates of exchange; and the satirisation of corporate America, which at times makes it feel like an inky black comedy.

There is no doubt in my mind that writer-director Dan Gilroy has captured the zeitgeist by placing within a taut action-based thriller a refreshingly intelligent yet cynical debate in which the metaphor of news media plays on a wider field.  Indeed, the canvas on which Gilroy’s narrative paradox is portrayed is that of news and broadcast media, because there are no more cynical industries known to man.

In this respect, Nightcrawler follows in a fine tradition of movies about the pursuit of news stories.  Consider The Front Page, Network, Goodnight and Good Luck, plus many more pursuing the shady world of paparazzi who manufacture as much as discover the news (eg. The Ghouls.)  Not a new subject then, but definitely a fresh treatment, especially a honed character study.  Indeed, it is the quality of character development and performances Gilroy has extracted from his cast that allow the quality of Nightcrawler to stand out from the crowd.

Bloom starts the movie as an unemployed and shady grifter who by chance finds himself drawn into the role of stringer to a local TV channel, where news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo, who also happens to be Mrs Gilroy) is drawn into a ratings war by feeding off the ghoulish bloodlust of her audiences.

This is the seedy nocturnal underbelly of LA, a world where getting first shot at a murder scene to take video footage before the police can push back the rubberneckers pays dividends.  Good footage of a shooting or a car wreckage, the sort that warrants a health warning to viewers, pays good money for the freelance professionals, equipped with police scanning radios, fast cars and top notch video gear.  All that matters is getting there ahead of the competition and preferably ahead of the police, since that exclusivity commands the top price for your footage and the top billing on the news channels.

Bloom sharpens up his act, acquires the real gear, buys a faster set of wheels than Bill Paxton‘s Joe Loder, and, crucially, hires Rick (British actor Riz Ahmed), a destitute guy who knows the streets to act as his sidekick and navigator.  Lou scares the living daylights out of Rick by driving at breakneck speed and taking every risk in pursuit of the story, while treating him like dirt and quoting meaningless snatches of corporate drivel to him.

Lou is evidently a man who has been used by employers in the past and turns this psychology on its head to abuse and taunt the guy, ultimately with the lure of big dollars.  In turn he and Nina face the heat from the police by withholding evidence, not that that threat intimidates Lou in any way – the prize is too big for him to stop.  It could have been any medium but the fact that he chooses a competitive environment and thrives by corrupting the rules of the game, the laws of the land and the ethics of business speaks volumes not just for the character but the nature of American capitalism – and maybe a hint that while it contains the seeds of its own extinction, it survives against the odds.

Bloom’s big chance comes through a fluke of being in the right place at the right time. He chances upon a triple murder in a large mansion in the hills before the killers have left.  With some deception and manipulation he gets his story, bargains a better by-line and fobs off the cops.

More than that, he has enough information to track down the perps and tip off the police while filming the multiply fatal results, and an ensuing high octane car chase.  I mention this because action films are not generally my forte, no matter how well they are done.  In Nightcrawler I was metaphorically glued to the screen, not just by the quality of the stunts but the fact that they were integral to the narrative, fuelled by Bloom’s prurient desire to make the news and deliver the footage that will make his name, using the TV station as a stepping stone.

This is undoubtedly Gyllenhaal at top of his game, a high octane performance to match the car chase, one that will have him top of the Oscar nomination list for Best Actor.  This is  not praise to be thrown out lightly but tribute to the guile and substance he brings to Lou Bloom.  That the character is sleazy and wilfully egotistical you expect, but Gyllenhaal sharpens the single-minded drive such that he fizzes with Machiavellian energy in pretty much every scene.  It is an awesome performance, the kind that forces you to watch Lou, almost against your will.  The big headline was that the actor lost 30lbs to play Mr Bloom, but somehow it gives him a luminescent, almost cadaverous intensity.

To play opposite Gyllenhaal requires an actress with equal fortitude, and I’m happy to report that Russo did not get the job merely by virtue of being married to the director.  It is the sort of role where you could easily see a Streep or a Mirren having a field day, but Russo proves she is quite capable of delivering a character role with authority masking a hint of vulnerability that allows Bloom to exploit her for his own terrifying purposes.  But don’t mistake that for lack of mental toughness on the part of Nina – she is hard as nails and does not suffer fools gladly, witnessed by her tart retort to the police detective who tries to stop her broadcasting the megabucks story. She isn’t afraid to put her money where her mouth is, literally.  She is a woman who has survived by following her instinct wherever it might lead.

Neither are sympathetic but it is she who caves in first.  Bloom and Romani share a fascinating, symbiotic relationship fuelled by mutual need and gradually breaking her personal rules by crossing the rubicon that divides professional and personal relationships.  He knows which buttons he has to press, though she takes time to come round to him – it isn’t at all instant, and her misgivings include the fact that she is considerably older than he.  Would they make a couple?  Stranger things have happened.

So there you have it, a beautifully crafted movie that succeeds at pretty much every level. More could have been made of the rivalry with Paxton’s Loder, but that apart you will be awed by Nightcrawler for all the right reasons.  How often can you say that about a movie?  Twice this week it seems, given the praise also lavished on Mike Leigh‘s Mr Turner, but that is a review to follow…

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