Nightcrawler presents a dark canvas

Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance in the pulse-pounding new thriller set in the nocturnal underbelly of contemporary Los Angeles has been getting plenty of plaudits, but are they deserved? Peter Watts finds out:

Lou Bloom is a despicable human being.

A petty criminal and anti-social loner, we find Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal) stealing metal and assaulting security guards in order to make ends meet. He is poorly educated but has a capacity to learn quickly through experience and spending time looking through the internet, so much so that his adopted speech pattern is more reminiscent of a soulless talking Wikipedia entry than a human. Within Lou is an unfulfilled streak of hunger and ambition that has yet to find an outlet.

One evening he is introduced to the world of nightcrawlers after chancing upon the aftermath of a traffic accident. As a pair of highway patrol officers pull a woman from a burning car two freelance cameramen pull up and start filming the incident in all its gory detail, telling Lou that the footage will be sold to the highest bidding TV station for the morning news.

Spotting an opportunity, Lou acquires a video camera and a police scanner and goes to work trying to get footage, antagonising police officers and the public along the way. Quickly learning how to get close in and find the story that Rene Russo’s morning news director wants, over the next few months success means Lou and his naïve assistant Rick (Ahmed from Four Lions) upgrade cars, scanners and camera equipment to get better quality footage and get on the scene faster.

Learning more about the local rolling morning news media, it becomes clear that the film is addressing what it sees as a world in which real news is squeezed out in favour of shock pieces. Designed to further the perception of an increasingly violent society, regardless of falling crime statistics, these graphic footage stories concentrate on perpetuating the white victim, minority criminal dynamic favoured by many US networks.

As Lou becomes more adept at finding stories and selling them to news outlets, it becomes increasingly obvious that he will disregard any moral and legal impediments in order to get the story. As the stakes get higher, he is more than willing to drag a reluctant Rick along into dangerous situations to feed his new found raison d’etre.

With superb support from Russo and a likeable Riz Ahmed, early Oscar frontrunner Gyllenhaal is incredible as the gaunt nightowl Bloom – weird, unsettling, engaging – with the occasional subtle wide-eyed look of a predator zeroing in on his prey. Sumptuously shot by cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will be Blood, Good Night & Good Luck) and writer/director Dan Gilroy, the film presents Los Angeles as a dark canvass on which those who are prepared to forego any moral and ethical concerns can paint their twisted take on the American Dream.

Lou Bloom is a despicable human being. He’ll go far in this world.

peter watts


Review by Peter Watts. Nightcrawler is out now in the UK and US and hits Australian screens on 27th November.