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2 November 2014

"What If My Problem Wasn't That I Don't Understand People but That I Don't Like Them?"

Suzanne Stone has nothing on Lou Bloom. "Good things come to those who work their asses off," Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) says in Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, Nightcrawler — a thriller that mashes up To Die For and The Fast and the Furious, with a hefty dose of American Psycho. Indeed, you can't help but admire Lou's industry and persistence, even if there isn't much else to like about him. As the film opens, Lou is a small-time thief seeking work. He's even willing to do an unpaid internship, but for some reason — mainly because he is seriously creepy and unscrupulous — no one wants to hire him, even though he has done a lot of online research into how to have a successful career. By chance, he happens upon a crime scene and spots a stringer filming the footage and selling it to a local TV network.

He buys himself a camcorder and a police scanner and his business is born. At the first late-night crime scene he visits, he manages to make a complete fool of himself and miss most of the good shots, but when he rocks up at the lowest-rated Los Angeles TV station with the footage, he manages to impress the night shift's news director, Nina (Rene Russo), who thinks he has a good eye. She gives him some tips and hands him a cheque for $250, and then Lou goes home to watch his clip airing on the morning news.

Pleased with his success and having read online about the importance of growth, he sets about hiring an intern: Rick (Riz Ahmed) has no job, no home and no experience but Lou offers to pay him $30 a night for his help and the two of them capture some impressive scoops, much to the consternation of some of the more experienced nightcrawlers. And although Lou continues to impress Nina, some of her colleagues at the TV station, such as Frank (played by Mad Men's Kevin Rahm), who doesn't like Lou and questions his integrity and ethics. "Your job is to do the Tweet of the day and tell Deb to turn sideways in the weather forecast," Nina tells Frank dismissively.

As the film progresses, Lou becomes increasingly successful and is able to upgrade his camera kit and buy a flashy red sports car, which allows him to get to the crime scenes even more quickly. But the success goes to Lou's head and he seems to shift from creepy, unsettling and socially awkward to self-obsessed and sociopathic, as his desire to capture and sell footage soon overrides any instinct to help the victims at the crime scenes he visits. It isn't even as though he has a strong journalistic desire to get the story, either; he just wants the money and the glory.

Nightcrawler is a dark film, for sure, but it's also quite funny in places — there is plenty of incredulous laughter at some of the things Lou says and the way he behaves. The character reminded me a little of  Patrick Bateman from American Psycho in some ways — they both do things because they want to fit it, but see other people as a means to achieve what they want and view other people with a cold, clinical detachment. Vile as Lou is, though, we almost want him to get away with it, and this is mainly down to Gyllenhaal's brilliant performance. The chemistry between Gyllenhaal and both Russo and Ahmed is also interesting here. In theory, Russo's Nina should be the one in a position of power and yet Lou's scary ability to manipulate and persuade puts her on the back foot. Rick, meanwhile, stands no chance but he seems to genuinely believe his boss when he says he wants to help Rick develop his career and learn.

Clocking in at just under two hours, Nightcrawler is well-paced and suspenseful, with narrative twists as sudden as the U-turns Lou pulls on the darkened hills above Los Angeles; LA itself — or, at least, its dark, seedy underbelly — also has a prominent role in the film. None of the characters is very likeable, but Gilroy pulls together a compelling, if often ghoulish, story of ambition, persistence and vanity gone horribly wrong.

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