Louis Bloom (a gaunt Jake Gyllenhaal), the lead character in Dan Gilroy’s debut feature Nightcrawler, is an animal. What kind is left up for debate. Like the coyotes that are a staple of Southern California, he roams in the shadows, stalking his subjects. But he’s not quite as bloodthirsty and far too cerebral to act impulsively. He’s a buzzard, swooping around the city, circling the deceased as a means of fueling both a need and a desire. Whatever remnants of a man that was once there is buried underneath a mass of disappointments and personal failures. He’s an American figure, through and through, beaten into accepting a cutthroat ideology that makes him a predator. To paraphrase Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Louis Bloom has a competition in him and wants no one else to succeed.
Bloom’s enterprise is comparably small to Plainview’s oil ventures, though. He starts off as a thief, making quick money out of selling manhole covers and chain-link fences. Constantly trying to barter for a higher price, Bloom is ever the salesman. He asks a potential employer for a job, then an internship, and simply a trial period - he’s a cog attempting to find his place. A particular line that struck me early in the film, and one that is featured prominently through much of the film’s advertising, involves Bloom’s studious awareness of the cultural climate: “I used to expect my needs to be considered”. It’s the sort of throwaway line that doesn’t get much emphasis given the zippiness of Bloom’s “You have to make the money to buy the ticket”, but it’s one of only a few citations to Bloom’s past. Nightcrawler is an interesting exercise in that it follows this dark character getting darker, yet the instigator down this spiral of decadence is left for the audience to decipher. The aforementioned line has broad implications, but if anything, it’s one of the few acknowledgements that Bloom’s venality was spurred by a cultural promise left unrealized.
As the picture progresses, Bloom immerses himself in the world of nightcrawling - the act of capturing video of late night crime scenes and accidents in progress. With local television stations as his clients, Bloom sells his recordings of car wrecks, home invasions, and murders to the highest bidder. With a flimsy handheld camera and a police scanner, Bloom speeds through Los Angeles’ affluent neighborhoods for his livelihood. As Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the television director of the city’s smuttiest station, notes: only urban crimes in elite neighborhoods pique her interest. Much of the film’s media satire reads as past its expiration date, though Gyllenhaal and Russo develop a toxic and wickedly fun rapport together that compensates for this feeling of déjà-vu.
Gilroy is particularly attuned to the movement of his camera in conjunction with the movement of his characters. A particular scene involving Bloom confessing how he has committed to this new nightcrawling gig registers as something close to a marriage proposal. With the camera positioned at an angle with Romina’s back against the audience, Bloom slowly walks toward her and the camera compresses the space by moving forward as well. She’s essentially positioned in a vice grip in this single shot where Bloom is proposing a lifelong commitment. When Gilroy cuts to Rene Russo’s reaction shot, it’s as if she’s holding her breath from being compressed within the frame - it’s a smart technique that Gilroy deploys frequently to maintain suspense.
Yet there’s certainly something a bit off about the whole endeavor. Nightcrawler never seems to elevate to the next level of films that it shares a kinship with like the aforementioned There Will Be Blood or Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Part of the issue stems from the rather grating and overused use of music. James Newton Howard’s score is a crutch that Gilroy uses far too frequently, particularly during pivotal scenes that rely heavily on dialogue. This is partly an issue of sound mixing, where Howard’s scoring overwhelms dialogue. Other times, however, Gilroy utilizes the score to emphasize a point that would’ve been better left to his actors to highlight. As Romina mentions in an enthralling news room sequence, she notifies her anchors to hit the point harder - Howard’s score does just that, to bruising effect. It’s hard not to feel that a more indelible impression could’ve been made by more subtle gestures. And what this gesture achieves is a measure of unnecessary distance. Sometimes it’s best to let the camera capture rather than introduce such an overt artificial component. But of course, after Louis Bloom moves a body from underneath wreckage for the best lighting and framing, that might be the whole point.