The picture is a scathing slice of satire targeted at the manipulative quirks and mechanism of a contemporary news broadcast media unconcerned with journalistic morality and hungry for ratings – however, the amplified realities summoned throughout, feel all too familiar and real. After stumbling across a gruesome car accident and witnessing a two-man television crew speed to the chaotic scene, pick the bones of the burnt-out wreckage with their cameras like hi-tech coyotes, and later sell the footage to a TV news channel for a premium, Lou realises an opportunity has presented itself. He gets his hands on a cheap camera, recruits a mild-mannered partner in crime (Riz Ahmed), and begins trawling the emergency radio airwaves in the hope of capturing some “bloody” and lucrative footage.
In the same manner that Mary Harron’s American Psycho demonised a vacuous, image-obsessed generation of yuppies and the poisoned chalice of capitalism from which they drank – placing the blame at the door of a 1980’s America governed by hyper-masculinity and “greed is good” mentality – Nightcrawler also draws a clear line of cause and effect between its leading man’s narcissistic nature and the equally apathetic environment he inhabits. There’s a distinct air of Patrick Bateman to Lou and his duelling personas; an ability to provoke an unnerving sense of both pity and fear yet somehow remain endearing and even charming. The film points a crooked finger squarely at post-economic breakdown America, inhabited by Generation X Mk. II; Individuals brandishing a head full of dreams inhibited by the jobless ‘McDonald’s or bust’ nightmare in which they reside. Part self-help guru, part vampiric creep sucking his victims dry and sealing their souls inside his HD memory card, it is an outstanding and bizarre performance from Gyllenhaal that will most likely prove transformative for the increasingly compelling star.
Director Dan Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit have ripped away Los Angeles’ idiosyncratic sun blushed atmosphere, redecorating their cold dystopian vision of the city with vibrating neon palm trees and shades of everlasting darkness – a raspberry ripple of manufactured light and West-Coast twilight providing a fitting backdrop for Lou’s subversive behaviour. Sustained sequences frame the action through Lou’s ghoulish gaze, utilising the point-of-view of his camera lens to traverse the carnage underfoot. Such moments are highly reminiscent of the shocking voyeurism of Michael Powell’s 1960 picture Peeping Tom, as Lou’s compulsion to capture increasingly extreme footage for the bloodthirsty viewers and his own professional adulation rapidly grows and grows.
The supporting cast including Bill Paxton as a rival cameraman, Rene Russo as a desperate news channel director, and Ahmed as Lou’s perpetually bewildered assistant, is consistently strong, especially in the case of Russo – who is deserving of much more screen time. The insular focus upon Lou’s character is both Nightcrawler’s most affecting tool and biggest missed opportunity with such an engaging collective waiting in the wings.
Despite its thematic and stylistic allusions to previous examples of cult cinema, Nightcrawler is undoubtedly a film which deserves to stand alone. Ambitious and intricate in equal measure, it offers up its own unique, shocking and surprisingly comedic conversation that will likely remain relevant for many years to come. A true American cinematic deviant.