In the ruthless media satire Network, TV news anchor Howard Beale, fed up with the rampant voyeurism in American journalism famously screams, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” But for Lou Bloom, the so-called hero of Dan Gilroy’s arresting drama NIghtcrawler, the diatribe might include a line like “I will always give the people what they want.”
Bloom is a lonely drifter, traveling the night streets of L.A. looking for a sense of purpose when he comes across a fiery car crash and a man (Bill Paxton) filming the wreckage to sell to a local TV news outlet. He buys his own video equipment and police scanner, and starts tracking down breaking news stories. But journalistic ethics is the last thing on Bloom’s mind; his increasingly pushy methods leave him with few friends in law enforcement. Soon, a local station and its increasingly desperate news director (an icy Rene Russo) notices Bloom’s results, and soon he gains a reputation as the guy who will get the footage no one else can. But how far will he go to get the perfect shot, particularly when he’s the first to come across evidence at a major crime scene?
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Bloom in a revelatory performance. He’s hyperactive, twitchy and odd, but there’s a seething…something simmering underneath. Is it anger? Grief? Apathy? The film doesn’t provide any answers, but Gyllenhaal’s giant, expressive eyes tell more than dialogue ever could. His high-pitched, squealing voice and rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness cadence spill over every scene, giving the film a sharp, relentless edge. Gyllenhaal has consistently proven himself to be one of the best actors around, and here he turns in perhaps his finest performance. This is the kind of movie where the hero starts out creepy and unlikeable and grows into something much worse. It’s easy to lose an audience with an antihero so repulsive, but Gyllenhaal’s performance kept me engaged every step of the way.
In its depiction of a wandering loner prowling the streets of a metropolis, Nightcrawler has obvious parallels to Taxi Driver, my all-time favorite film. I see echoes of Paul Schrader’s concept of “God’s lonely man,” a disillusioned, post-Vietnam cynic looking for something in this world he doesn’t despise.
For Bloom, the looming shadow is not Vietnam but our increasingly isolating and sensationalist media culture, which emphasizes voyeurism over any sense of humanity. Studies have shown that TV news doesn’t help us feel more connected to the suffering of others; it actually insulates us from it. No matter how sad we might feel when we hear of a violent car wreck, our inner thoughts say, “I’m glad that wasn’t me.” In one of the film’s most memorable lines, news director Nina tells Bloom, “Think of our broadcast as a woman running down the street with her throat cut open.” That takes “if it bleeds, it leads” to a whole new level.
Rather than rail against this morally vacuous culture, as Travis Bickle did in Taxi Driver, Bloom dives in headlong, heedless of the human lives (and deaths) around him. Like with Bickle, we never get a true sense of who Bloom really is, or how he got to be so messed up. He remains cold and unknowable, almost like a robot. His eventual partner offers up this valuable critique that he doesn’t sound like a human being when he talks. Some might find this lack of empathy off-putting, but I think it works as a sort of meta-commentary on how hard it is to know someone when we view them as just another statistic. And, based on his actions, there would be nothing that could redeem Bloom in our eyes anyway.
The film is a slow, steady burn, building up to a relentlessly intense second half, featuring one of the most thrilling, realistic car chases I’ve ever seen. Like Travis Bickle, we’re shocked less by Bloom’s actions than we are of a culture that allows him to get away with them, and maybe even rewards him for it. This is a remarkably polished debut for writer-director Dan Gilroy. His cynical, bleak view of L.A.’s seedy media underbelly is both terrifying and kind of funny; with a strain of pitch-black humor sprinkled throughout. James Newton Howard’s brilliant score, which starts out impossibly hopeful, builds to a cacophonous climax, descending into absolute chaos alongside Bloom’s paper-thin sanity.
Network was an eerily prescient film, predicting the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the obsession with TV ratings over everything else. We didn’t listen to Howard Beale’s pleas, or, for that matter, Truman Burbank’s in The Truman Show. We’re more obsessed with watching other peoples’ lives than ever before. But reality TV is not interested in human beings, really; it’s interested in caricatures, controversial figures that lie on the opposite poles of any argument, while most people lie in the more sensible middle (the same can be said for our political culture). Is it really so surprising that such a culture might produce someone like Lou Bloom, interested not in other people but only in the mannequins that exist in his mind and how they can serve him?
The experience of watching Nightcrawler is dehumanizing and maybe even soul-sucking, but no matter how repulsed you are by it, you won’t be able to take your eyes off it. Sounds like how I feel when I turn on the evening news.