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Non-Review Review: Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler features a tour de force performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.

Gyllenhaal plays Louie (“call me Lou”) Bloom, a wandering and lost soul who stalks late-night Los Angeles in search of a lucrative pay-day. He is just trying to get his foot on the ladder any way that an entrepreneurial young gentleman can – he’s introduced stealing construction supplies and scrap metal so he can sell them on, seguing effortlessly into a well-rehearsed job pitch applying for an unpaid internship.

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Bloom seems like a man who has watched people from a distance for years, almost through a filter. Gyllenhaal injects a haunting eccentricity into the character, his wide eyes and practised stillness almost edging Bloom into the uncanny valley. Though he seems to always know just what to say, there’s something distinctly inhuman about Lou Bloom. He watches people, but from the outside. He has got a pretty passable impersonation of a human being down, but there’s just something missing.

Nightcrawler is a fascinating, harrow and occasional wry look at desperation and ruthlessness – and the heady cocktail they make when blended together.

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One day, Lou hits upon an idea. Witnessing a predatory freelance video team (the eponymous “nightcrawlers”) prowling the urban wasteland in search of some grizzly footage, Lou is inspired. “I’m a quick study,” he boasts, and he’s not wrong. Within hours of hitting upon the idea to enter the world of freelance news footage, Lou has procured a police scanner and video camera, and is interviewing for an intern to assist him in his enterprise.

Gyllenhaal offers a truly fascinating leading character. Bloom always seems strangely disconnected from what is going on around him, but is also a keen observer of human nature. Once he discovers that there is money in providing footage of human suffering to the local news stations, he sets out to ruthlessly corner the market. Although the network claims to want “gritty” or “raw” footage of life in Los Angeles, Bloom immediately and intuitively understands that they mean “bloody.”

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At one point in the film, another character suggests that Bloom’s biggest problem is that he doesn’t understand people. This seems like an easy mistake to make, given the character’s awkward use of business jargon and eerie calm. However, Nightcrawler suggests that Bloom’s problem is more unsettling. “What if my problem is not that I don’t understand people?” he asks rhetorically. “What if my problem is just that I don’t like them?”

Naturally, Bloom proves quite adept at the art of translating human suffering to the screen – capturing car crashes, fires, domestic disturbances and even murders. However, his aptitude makes perfect sense. Bloom has an eye for human weakness and suffering. He hides his ruthlessly streak well. With a television and an internet connection, Bloom has clearly spent far too much time taking on-line courses about self-esteem and business management.

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He is just as skilled as the networks as couching what he wants in euphemism and abstraction. Nightcrawler offers a world inhabited by characters desperately buying and selling, trading and dealing with one another. Nobody is honest about what they want or what they have, and there’s a sense that Bloom thrives in this cut-throat environment because he doesn’t lie to himself. He knows what he is and what he has to do to succeed, and he knows what others need from him and how to sell it.

Rene Russo brings a palpable sense of unease and desperation to the role of Nina, the network news producer who works with Bloom. Russo plays Nina as a veteran poker player who is struggling with the hand she’s been dealt; a character who understands how much she needs Bloom but also desperate to hide it. Bill Paxton brings another sort of desperation to the role of veteran “nightcrawler” Joe Loder, potential rival to Bloom who may have more experience but lacks Bloom’s detached ruthlessness.

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Bloom occupies a strange netherworld of late-night Los Angeles. It is a world lit by burning fires, car headlamps, flashing police lights and tacky neon. What light penetrates through the night, fighting a desperate battle to ward off the dark, is brightly coloured and heavily saturated, as if to remind viewers of its artificial nature. Bloom often seems to retreat into the new studio at dawn, arriving just at the edge of daybreak as if trying to wring every last scream from the dark like a camera-wielding vampire.

Nightcrawler is the first feature film directed by veteran writer Dan Gilroy. However, Gilroy has an incredible confidence behind the camera, beckoning the viewer into a dark and twisted world. Bloom is a shark with a hunger for human suffering and a nose for blood. He stalks his prey through the dark of late night Los Angeles, the pools of artificial light too weak to ward him off. Although Gilroy and Gyllenhaal also ensure that Bloom seems awkward or “off” during the day, the night finds the cameraman in his element.

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To be fair, the script for Nightcrawler hits on some familiar commentary about the state of the news media. Only the most naive viewer would be surprised to discover that the news is just as keen to sell itself as Bloom is. One particularly effective sequence invites us into the control room as Nina “directs” a live broadcast just as effectively as Bloom had “framed” his footage. Bloom may be selling himself, but the new media is selling fear. After all, sweeps are coming up.

Nightcrawler isn’t Network, but it isn’t trying to be. These snippets of life inside a mid-to-low-tier Los Angeles newsroom exists as background material, echoing and mirroring the same heady mix of desperation and entrepreneurship that drives most of the characters who exist in the film. It is all one giant messy game, a grotesque spectacle in which the only way to win is to do the thing that your competitor won’t. Bloom just happens to be ruthless enough that he is playing to win.

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Nightcrawler is a harrowing examination of human desperation and exploitation, of an unchecked market driven by ruthlessness and detachment. Gyllenhaal’s Bloom may occasionally seem inhuman, but he understands human nature all too well.

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