Dir. Dan Gilroy. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo
Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is an enterprising American entrepreneur. Almost entirely self-trained, with the help of some business classes from the Internet, he represents the “school of hard knocks” approach to building a company. Through a combination of dogged persistence, on-scene training, hard work, and a little bit of luck, Lou rises from a low-rent version of himself to a highly successful man over the course of the film. Like he tells a fellow early on in the movie, he believes that if you’re going to win the lottery, you have to make enough money to buy a ticket, and he certainly reaches that height. He is the American Dream, no question about it. The seed money for his stringer business comes from stealing a bike and selling it to a pawn shop; our first look at him, in fact, sees him getting busted by a security officer for stealing, and then he summarily busts up the security officer. He blackmails the news director, Nina (Russo) into sexual favors by threatening to withhold film from her. He pays his assistant, Rick (Ahmed) a pittance, well below minimum wage, and browbeats him constantly. And he purposefully stalls a police investigation on a triple homicide because he can direct events to benefit himself, even if the collateral damage is brutal.
Nightcrawler is possibly a unique thriller. The average thriller would make Gyllenhaal’s character the one who kills a family in their home after a botched drug deal, or maybe the carjacker who kills a man buying medicine for his wife. But Lou is no killer: not in the literal sense, anyway. He’s the TV news version of a war profiteer; he relies on murder and crime and destruction for his living. (This sounds dangerously close to the “The news on television is just bad news!” complaint, but Nightcrawler is much too clever to take this hackneyed tack. Nina describes the coverage her station provides as the equivalent of a woman running down the street, screaming, with her throat cut, and she understands that’s how to pump up ratings.) Speaking as he does almost entirely in the worn-out jargon of business-related TED talks, Lou worships the God of Bargains. Sometimes it’s funny, lending the film a significant portion of its dark humor. While running out of an active crime scene and finding Rick too scared to enter the building, Lou gives him a talking-to about his lack of initiative and failing to capitalize on an opportunity for growth. Sometimes Lou’s money-talk is a little haunting; all of his interactions with Nina boil down to what he’s trying to get from her. (When Nina says, politely, that she doesn’t want to ruin their business relationship by mixing it with sex, Lou makes it clear that she could ruin their business relationship by refusing.) It is an adversarial relationship masquerading badly as a mutualistic one, built on deal-making. Business negotiations are usually presented in American media as the money equivalent of a high-speed race. Nightcrawler shows them for what they are: an exercise in exploitation. In short, Nightcrawler is the most striking indictment of capitalism in American film since Inside Job. A viewer can’t walk away from this movie without looking at what capitalism has done to warp Lou’s mind and think, “This sounds like a promising system.” Lou is a self-made man, and he is utterly devoid of humanitarian thoughts. Towards the end of the film, Rick makes a comment to the effect that Lou doesn’t get people. Lou’s response is chilling, probably because we knew that he felt this way.
Lou: What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them?
Building a business, in Nightcrawler, isn’t for nice people but for wannabe sociopaths. In a way that goes for Nina as well. Her programming choices are lurid, knowing as she does that people will cheer for it, but her conscience, Frank (Kevin Rahm, late of Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough), hates just about every piece of film that Lou brings in. It isn’t merely the graphic content that Frank doesn’t care for, but in some cases the highly questionable legality of airing the footage that Lou has for them. It hardly needs to be said that Frank is overruled every time.
Nina and Frank, at their business, have a similar relationship to the one Lou and Rick have at theirs; one person is totally in charge and largely amoral, while the other, without any real bargaining chips and more ethical grounding than is really desirable, tries to talk his boss down. No one touches Gyllenhaal in this film, who gives one of the best acting performances of the decade. (Between the 87th Academy Awards being unable to give any credit to Selma or Nightcrawler, perhaps at the expense of a film like American Sniper, we’re talking about a historically bad year for the Academy.) But Riz Ahmed, whose star turns in The Night Of and Rogue One have made him a recognizable face since Nightcrawler appeared in theaters, is a worthy foil. Rick is perpetually a little confused, broken down as he is by consistent poverty and incredible stress at his non-traditional workplace. Lou is totally unlikable, but Rick shows himself to be a pretty amicable guy. When Lou yells at him, Rick rarely loses his cool, and he doesn’t have much to say about Lou’s moronic koans. It’s easy to root for someone who has scruples, and easier still when he’s the only guy in the car who has them and is constantly forced to put them aside to grow his creepy boss’ business while arguing himself up to $75 a night. Unlike Lou, he doesn’t have the gall to put a ridiculous pricetag on his services. “I could have gotten more, couldn’t I?” he says mournfully. “Yes!” Lou replies.
One of the underrated elements of Nightcrawler is that it features one of the best car chases I’ve ever watched in a movie. As a suspect in the botched drug deal drives away in an SUV, pursued at high speed by cop cars and Lou’s Challenger, you can’t help but sit up a little straighter and hold your breath a little more. This is a movie that knows when to shut up and let the noise of the scene take over, and this scene – the lead-up to the chase, followed by the chase itself – is fantastic. It’s one of those scenes that feels like it lasts forever, even though the car chase itself only goes on for about two minutes. (Riz Ahmed throws several swear words in there, in case you’re watching around like, your boss or something.) During Nightcrawler, it reinforces the point that Lou gets to watch and record everyone, but only the viewer gets to watch all of the ridiculous things he does.
Lou’s great superpower, in the end, is his ability to walk through raindrops. In a car chase that claims half a dozen other vehicles, Lou’s car bursts through the debris like the Millennium Falcon escaping the second Death Star. (Contrast this with the fate of the stringer played by Bill Paxton, who crashes his van and his career for good about halfway through the film.) Nina decides to take her chances with a maniac like Lou instead of telling him, more prudently, that he and his footage can shove off. Rick never contacts the cops when he should, leaving Lou room to operate. And the film ends with Lou in charge of a new filming crew, interns all, and with two separate vans that will allow him to build his monopoly of news collection. He is the luckiest lottery winner, and he can tell himself that he deserves it: he made enough money to buy the ticket.