‘Nightcrawler’ Reminds Us That Capitalism and the Media Have Gotten Worse

As Nightcrawler compellingly depicts, every member of society is one rent payment away from tapping into their dark side.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) just wants to make some money. In the opening scene of Dan Gilroy’s excellent Nightcrawler, he trespasses onto private property to cut a chain-link fence and is approached by a police officer. He assaults the officer, snatches his watch, and heads to a pawn shop to profit from these items. There is a negotiation, and Lou admits that he is looking for a job. When he is denied, he offers to contribute free labor, known in the United States as an “internship”, but is shown out of the door.

We are led to believe that this is a routine night for Lou, an unemployed thief trying to survive in contemporary America. Since Nightcrawler is a film, however, something different has to happen. On this same night, a sullen Lou stumbles upon a car accident, strikes up a conversation with a cameraman (Bill Paxton) on the scene, and learns that he can make money by selling video footage to local news stations. This is Lou’s “aha!” moment. The rest of the film chronicles his rise in Los Angeles’ highly competitive world of freelance crime journalism.

Nightcrawler is a scathing critique of capitalism and shows how the effects of a struggling economy trickle down to the individual. When people like Lou need money to survive and are unable to find jobs, they are left to their own devices, and often make immoral decisions in pursuit of financial success.

In Lou’s case, he interferes with crime scenes in order to get the best possible footage that he can sell to Nina (Rene Russo), a veteran news director who similarly sells her soul to stay afloat. Nina has been in the business for decades, but she has never experienced professional stability, always moving from station to station throughout her career. This explains why she takes Lou under her wing. She is smart enough to know what kind of footage brings the ratings and jaded enough not to care about how that footage has been obtained.

Nina’s instincts prove to be correct, and Lou learns that he has a knack for this kind of thing. He hires Rick (Riz Ahmed), a young homeless man, to help him with his work; together, the two experience both the trials and tribulations that come with starting a small business.

Gilroy wisely conceals Lou and Rick’s backstories, which raises many questions about their circumstances. It is possible that both Lou and Rick have been in prison and cannot obtain employment because of their criminal records. It is equally possible that they lack the kind of higher education that is needed to get ahead in 21st century America. By not revealing this information, Gilroy suggests that it doesn’t matter. As the film progresses, we come to realize that Lou is a sociopath who lacks a moral conscience, whereas Rick is a well-intended individual who cannot catch a break. They both need money, however, and when the economy isn’t fulfilling its promise, the line between sociopath and nobleman becomes blurred. Every member of society is one rent payment away from tapping into their dark side.

The film’s indictment of capitalism is broad, but the world of local television news is specific, and Gilroy offers provocative commentary on the creation and consumption of news in 21st century America. A number of critics have complained that the points made here are too shallow and simplistic, pointing out that we’ve seen this story before in films like Network (1976), The King of Comedy (1982), and To Die For (1995). This may be true, but Nightcrawler is a powerful reminder that the situation has only gotten worse.

The purpose of local television news has always been to provide viewers with information about their community. In order to succeed, local news stations must report unique stories that cannot be gleaned from nationally syndicated news outlets. This typically involves stories about local crime, and as Nightcrawler illustrates, gruesome murders in affluent neighborhoods garner the highest ratings. Many of us already know this, but Nightcrawler takes it a step further by showing us how local news operates when crime rates have dropped. This dearth of violence means there will be a frantic fight to be the first on the scene when a crime does occur; furthermore, in Lou’s case, there will also be fabrication in order to make the scene more dramatic.

This is what separates Nightcrawler from the aforementioned thematic predecessors, as well as what makes it an urgent exposé of our times. The problem of fabrication isn’t specific to local television news, either. Recently, many have been outraged over reports that Rolling Stone journalist Sabrina Erdely failed to fact-check an alleged rape at the University of Virginia, and Brian Williams has received flack for embellishing his role in a military incident during the Iraq war. These are two incidents that imply that even the most respected journalists are not above fabricating a story in order to succeed in a failing economy.

Gilroy calls into question the credibility of contemporary news, but he doesn’t let the audience off the hook. After all, Lou and Nina are merely giving the viewers what they want to see. In this regard, the film confronts our culture’s obsession with crime stories. In 2011, more Americans followed the Casey Anthony trial than the Arab Spring, and many found pleasure in being the voyeur. These true crime stories aren’t exactly newsworthy, but they excite and enrage the viewer, which in turn benefits the professional news organizations that continue to profit from them.

Nightcrawler subtly engages with these issues without offering any easy solutions, and those who might be turned off by the political satire can rest knowing that the film is, at its core, a tense thriller with a comic bite. Aided by Robert Elswit’s cinematography, which beautifully captures the nightlife of Los Angeles, Gilroy has made an entertaining film that features the most intense set-pieces in recent memory. A car chase toward the end of the movie is particularly breathtaking.

The performances are all outstanding. Gyllenhaal outdoes himself by playing one of the most memorable characters of 2014, and Russo matches him with a comeback that should demand the attention of every casting director in Hollywood. Ahmed, as well, is brilliant as the film’s moral center. Unlike Lou and Nina, Rick has a conscience, and if it weren’t for his dire financial situation, he would be doing something nobler with his life. I’m not certain we can say the same about Lou and Nina.

The dual-format Blu-ray/DVD combo comes with a behind-the-scenes making-of featurette entitled “If it Bleeds, it Leads”, which is informative if a bit slight, and a commentary by the three Gilroys — writer and director Dan, producer Tony, and editor John — that offers some insights into the making of the film as well as its major themes.

Like Drive (2011), Nightcrawler has the potential to become a cult classic. It tackles disturbing themes with a darkly funny undertone. There were many moments when I laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all, and it is strangely satisfying to watch Gyllenhaal sink his teeth into such perversion. Similar to Ryan Gosling in Drive, Gyllenhaal plays a dangerous sociopath with a wry charm, a man you root for until he gives you the creeps. There’s something audacious about Gyllenhaal’s willingness to remain amoral throughout the film, if only because our attraction to his character reveals a few unpleasant truths about ourselves.

RATING 9 / 10