The phrase “night crawler” evokes nothing pretty – a slang term for a burglar, perhaps, or a prostitute. The only formal definition of its portmanteau version refers to a species of large earthworm, so called for its habit of surfacing at sundown. Fittingly, Nightcrawler the film is something of a creepy-crawly affair as well – Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut is a seedy and grotesque exploration of freelance paparazzi reporting in and around Los Angeles.
Opening to a tableau of long landscape shots of the city, still and impersonal, the film then reveals protagonist Louis Bloom, played by Jake Gyllenhaal of Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain fame. We are first introduced to Bloom, a loner and apparent insomniac, as he steals copper wire from a construction site. He duly sells his plunder to a scrap merchant, but when he makes an impassioned pitch for employment, the man refuses on account of not wishing to work with “a f***in’ thief”. The hypocrisy of the scrap dealer, and Bloom’s subsequent meeting with an unsympathetic pawnbroker to exchange a pilfered bicycle, arouse our sympathy despite our knowledge of the character’s essential immorality.
Bloom’s fortunes take a turn when he witnesses a road traffic accident, and watches the subsequent arrival of two opportunistic cameramen on the scene to capture the gory details. Inspired by their remarking on how profitable such ventures could be, he acquires a camcorder and a police scanner, and sets out to make his own murky mark in the world of broadcast journalism. After some initial failures, he begins contributing regular freelance footage to a local TV station, developing an increasingly unhinged affection morning news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) in the process. However, as his rivals devise ever more elaborate methods of capturing those elusive first shots of homicides, robberies and other violent events for themselves, Bloom is driven to sinister lengths in order to compete.
The plot unfolds amidst a milieu of vibrant primary-coloured street lights and shop signs strewn over great swathes of shadowy backdrops. Gilroy makes astute use of light and shadow to convey Bloom’s lightening and, more frequently, darkening moods. Smart montages blend the cinematic spectacle of Bloom and his ‘intern’ Rick (Riz Ahmed) speeding towards crime scenes with sequences of the grainy video footage obtained from their own handheld perspectives. The car chases themselves are vivid and well shot, contrasting sharply with the relaxed pace of the earlier scenes. Alongside the visuals, the film is underpinned by James Newton Howard’s grungy, bass-heavy score, overdubbed frequently by indistinct police radio chatter.
Gyllenhaal’s character maintains our support even as his actions become ever more ominous. The self-effacing smile he dons when negotiating various deals can charm even the most resolute observer of his actions, as do interim domestic shots of him laughing at daytime TV whilst ironing shirts or eating ready meals. Beside his television sits a solitary plant in the sunlight, which he is seen lovingly nurturing at several points – a useful reflective motif.
Throughout the film, Gyllenhaal’s compelling performance carries the weight of the film’s momentum. His way of gently persuading Rick to do his bidding is unsettling enough – “What if I were obliged to hurt you?” – but the phrase “a friend is a gift you give yourself” has never been uttered with such leering menace (it would be spoiling to reveal the precise context). Yet Bloom is readily forgiven, as his morals are ultimately no worse than those of the city he inhabits.
The film does telegraph the ultimate fate for many of its characters from some distance, but the means by which they arrive there can still be surprising. Combining the neon splendour and high-speed vehicular rushes of Drive with the tragically acerbic media satire of Network, Nightcrawler is a deliciously lurid and disturbing tale, in which the only good guys are the cops and the corpses.