Robert Elswit–a Paul Thomas Anderson veteran–serves as director of photography and characterizes L.A. through several quick shots in the film’s opening. The images are fleeting yet remain long enough for Elswit to get the film’s atmosphere across. Nighttime L.A. is a haunting ground emphasized by its abandoned parks, desolate buildings, and streetlights which don’t emanate warmth and safety against the night but rather highlight its stark emptiness. Enter Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal): Lou stalks the night in search for scrap to sell.
Gyllenhaal’s performance is one of a quiet magnitude. There’s a glint in Bloom’s eyes, a sense of child-like curiosity. Yet there’s something more behind that glint. Accompanied by that curiosity is something sinister. Gyllenhaal doesn’t give it all away and neither does director Dan Gilroy. Bloom’s cheeks are sharp to the bone, his face is fraught with a dark determination. It’s off-putting and reminiscent of Christian Bale’s own portrayal of Patrick Bateman, a character whose outward appearance also hid a malevolence which could only peek out in public. Which is what makes Lou so terrifying. There’s no attempt on Lou’s part to blend in society like Bateman. Lou embraces his own twisted ideology, an ideology as it turns out, that makes him perfect for the job of being a “nightcrawler,” the film’s eponymous title.
As Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) initially demonstrates and Nina Romina (Rene Russo) later explains, nightcrawlers are cameramen who prowl the after-dark streets of L.A. in search for vicious crime. Upon accidentally meeting Loder doing his job, Bloom is quickly inspired. At first only armed with a handheld camera, Bloom showcases that he’s a novice at the job but is able enough to land a relationship with the local news station as a freelancer.
From here, we begin to see Bloom’s evolution as a nightcrawler. At first it begins with the hiring of Rick (Riz Ahmed). Rick is desperate for money, he’s homeless. Like Lou, Rick also seems to be detached from society although unlike Lou, it isn’t by choice. It is from this difference in characterization that Gilroy, who also penned the script, shows just how twisted Lou is. Rick doesn’t have the gall to go as far as Lou does when it comes to the job but it’s understandable. Lou’s compass is amoral and if getting the best footage means moving a dead person’s body for a better photo or breaking into a home, he’ll do it.
There’s a sense of Cinéma vérité in how Lou goes about his job. Lou wants the truth and is willing to manipulate the cinematic image not to distort the truth but to accentuate it. One of the philosophical ideologies in Jean-Luc Godard’s 2004 “Notre Musique,” is that the truth has two sides to it. That very same multi-faceted truth is found in Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler.” Despite filming for the news–film which should only present the truth because it seeks to inform on the objectivity of events–there are no qualms with Lou’s manipulation of scenes. The morning audience of L.A. revels in the violence of its nighttime counterpart and Lou is simply giving them what they want. In a montage of images mirroring the opening shots of the film, morning L.A. is too characterized by its own series of images and sounds. The shots here focus on the satellite television dishes adorning the various houses as well as the mixture of sounds of different morning news programs being turned on.
Lou may not want to fit into society but he’s found his niche. Even Joe Loder, who saw Lou first as a nuisance to the nightcrawler scene, begins to see him as a rival and a threat to his own business. Nina–the news director for the graveyard shift–also can’t be helped but be drawn in by Lou. The two mirror one another in a way that Nina doesn’t want to admit. Nina sees herself as being better than Lou in every sense of the word. To her, nightcrawlers are the scum of society, willing to film events that would otherwise scar normal people. For Gilroy, the cinematic screen then acts as a buffer between the witnessing of the events in person and seeing them on television, with nightcrawlers being the mediator. Rome’s coliseum was filled for a reason and at its heart, this is what “Nightcrawler” is truly about. Gilroy updates the narrative for a modern audience (cars, police scanners, and GPS are all pivotal tools to being a nightcrawler) to depict society’s obsession with violence and the people on the fringe willing to provide it.
Nina’s disgust over nightcrawlers however is never outwardly stated. Rather, Rene Russo portrays it in her body and facial language. Both Lou and Nina may occupy the same frame, standing parallel to one another but there’s a sense of distancing that Russo exudes from her body as well as a pity from her face. Upon Lou completing his first job, Nina gives him a check for $150 and congratulates him in a manner that mimics the relationship between a dog and its owner.
Even Nina, however, cannot hold the upper-hand over Lou for too long. It is the Cinéma vérité style of filmmaking, coupled with Lou’s lack of empathy which allows him to quickly rise through the ranks. After hiring an intern, Lou not only gets better equipment but a new car as well as a change of clothes. The only thing that remains static is Lou’s attitude. It is not that the character doesn’t go through characterization but rather the world around him changes in order to reflect his nature. Lou may bend down, sprawl, and do the dirty work but he understands his position in society and is able to use it to his advantage when people underestimate him.
There’s no room for concepts such as good and evil in “Nightcrawler,” so for all the disgust we may hold for Lou, Gilroy makes us remember that Lou is simply playing by the rules of the world. Lou may not be as twisted as much as he’s just a reflection of the world around him. The message isn’t one-sided. In creating Lou, Gilroy also creates characters either morally opposite of Lou or characters, such as Rick, who are willing to go along with Lou but at a price, unlike Lou who does nightcrawling because he likes it.
In his directorial debut, Dan Gilroy constructs a frightening nighttime world that’s brought to life by Jake Gyllenhaal’s even more terrifying presence. Exhilarating and suspenseful, “Nightcrawler” is a film that seeks to reveal human nature through Bloom’s camera, giving the film a sense of meta-awareness.