Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler tells the story of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), an unemployed but driven young man who speaks in business school and self-help platitudes and is trying to get out of stealing scrap metal and into a proper career. One night Lou comes across a freelance news cameraman filming a gory traffic accident and learns that one can make a decent living doing this. Lou trades a stolen racing bike for a cheap video camera and a police scanner and sets out on his new career as a nightcrawler, spending his nights listening to police dispatch and racing through the streets of Los Angeles to grisly tragedies so he can film their immediate aftermath.
Lou finds that he has a natural talent for framing and recording urban horror. Soon, however, the reality is not enough and Lou begins tampering with some of the scenes to get better footage. His interference becomes more and more dangerous as he strives to get more shocking footage, and by the end of the film as we wait for his latest machination to bear fruit the, tension is almost unbearable. But like the scenes Lou films we can’t stop ourselves from watching. He is a psychopath, and that we are his willing audience is quite an indictment.
Nightcrawler is thrilling, black-hearted and funny. Gyllenhaal is perfect as Lou — gaunt, intense, slightly unhinged and always smiling (it never goes to his eyes, though). The most terrifying moments in the film occur when Lou is genuine, when he articulates what he really wants and the lengths to which he is prepared to go to get it. It is all the more horrific because we can’t help but admire the strength of his will. He speaks like a life coach; he is his own motivational speaker, and the clichés that make up his repertoire have a familiar ring — they might be believable, even laudable, coming from someone who wasn’t completely amoral. The way these messages are used to manipulate people and mask exploitation are brought to the fore by Lou’s interactions with his unpaid “intern”, a homeless young man named Rick (a terrific Riz Ahmed), the moral compass of the film, whose exchanges with Lou provide much of the humour.
Nightcrawler is a triumph, a scathing takedown of the news business that lands body-blows to the underlying structure of capitalism itself. That the film does this without becoming preachy is quite an accomplishment.