Having worked in the business of video production for over twenty years, five of those years solidly in network news, I think I’m on target when I say the general public is now pretty savvy about video. Given how inexpensive video technology is nowadays, given the proliferation of sites like You Tube, Vimeo, Instagram apps, video blogs and the like, and given how easy it’s become to utilize video software (people are editing video on their smartphones nowadays) one could make the argument that a film based on the video industry might come across as stale and dated. And most films set in the world of ENG (electronic news gathering) don’t get it right. The last film that hit it pretty squarely on the head was the brilliant Broadcast News, back in 1987. The last film I saw which dealt with ENG news was 15 Minutes, which was dated back in 2001. It was so bad that I walked out; also, I was extremely annoyed by another moviegoer who was snoring loudly in the theater. Says a lot about that film, doesn’t it?
If not for the arresting performance of Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler would also be guilty of treading over ground that is way past its expiration date. Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a petty thief who can’t find an honest job. He comes across a car accident where he meets a news stringer (Bill Paxton) who schools him on the trade of independent news videography. News stringers are independent “freelance” cameramen who race to the scene of a crime, accident, any event that results in human tragedy, film as much as they can, morals be damned, and sell the footage to the news station that’ll pay the most. Let me be clear that stringers do exist in real life, but in this film, they are portrayed more as paparazzi photogs than actual stringers. I could bore you with details about how stringers are actually treated like staff cameramen for news stations, how they are assigned the stories they cover, how they are not given anywhere near the amount of leeway in covering a crime scene as portrayed in this film, how they would never arrive on the scene prior to the police arriving, how a real local news department would never air footage of a dead body; basically, how none of the events of this film would ever happen in reality.
But forget all that. Once I decided to accept the artistic license of the film, I was able to enjoy it as a relatively taut thriller. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is simultaneously intense, menacing and comedic. Eerily thin and drawn, dark circles under his eyes, he looks like a shell of a human being, a wraith, someone you might expect to “night crawl,” that is, to troll the streets at night, looking for death and destruction for the purpose of videotaping it for a buck. He is a disarming charmer with a touch of Asperger’s; he clearly is socially awkward and isolated, which comes across whenever he introduces himself to anyone. But his razor-sharp tongue and his go-get-em, don’t say no attitude by way of Dale Carnegie and What Color Is Your Parachute couches his deep sociopathy to everyone who meets him until it’s too late and they’re either sucked into his machinations or targeted by them. This includes Paxton’s Joe Loder, the more experienced stringer who becomes Bloom’s main competition; Rick (the excellent Riz Ahmed), Louis’s assistant, whom he hires for $30 a night–Ahmed nails his character, which I can vouch for being pretty accurate in terms of how more and more people are entering this business of video. There’s Nina, a news producer played by a sight for sore eyes Rene Russo, who is indeed welcomed back to the screen (excluding her cameos in the Thor films); when confronted by the news station attorney who asks Nina if she’s questioning the legality of airing graphic footage, Nina responds, “No, the morality…of course, the legality!” Which encapsulates the theme of how far is too far in covering news; the thought of morality is nothing more than a punchline.
Although I was able to put aside my knowledge that nothing occurring in this film would happen in reality, there are moments in the film where I was pulled out of it, as some of the actions of the characters made little sense even in this fictionalized world of news gathering. Basic common sense is thrown away in some scenes to move the plot along. As Bloom climbs the ladder of success, he purchases a new car for his nightly jaunts: a fire red muscle car, which Rick cautions is not the best car in which to snoop around. The fact that Rick (or more specifically, the script) points this out speaks to Louis’s increasing narcissism. Fortunately, the film moves at a pace where those lapses of common sense are either forgiven, forgotten, or addressed in dialogue, as I just alluded to. There’s an absolutely dizzying action scene involving a car chase. To say any more would spoil it because the build up to the chase is just as tense as the chase itself. But I return again to Jake Gyllenhaal and how he is absolutely hypnotic at certain points. He and Russo have some fantastic scenes together, but look out for the scene where he lays down his terms to her just minutes before a broadcast. It harkens back to Javier Bardem’s nerve-jangling scene in No Country For Old Men. There is one brief scene between Russo and Gyllenhaal, full of sexual double entendres, which comes across as an outtake from a bad episode of Three’s Company. Additionally, the ending was a bit of a letdown. MILD SPOILER: If you were disappointed at the short shrift given to the female detective in Gone Girl, prepare yourself for a huge deja vu moment here.
While I believe Gyllenhaal delivers a performance meriting an Oscar consideration, my guess is that the subject matter is a bit too esoteric to garner a serious look by the academy. Or maybe voters will agree with me that the subject matter is “so five minutes ago.” Which is too bad because every performance is solid, the film ebbs and flows, all the while staying tense, suspenseful and unpredictable. Given how volatile this business of video has become, an industry with more downs than ups lately, I enjoyed this not only as a good film, but also as a guide for generating new business. 3.5/5 reels
UPDATE: In the 12 hours since I posted this review, I’ve learned that nightcrawlers do exist. In viewing an ABC News online video and speaking to a friend who makes a good living working as an independent news cameraman, I learned that in New York City, there are people who look for tragic stories around the clock to sell to news bureaus. I’d like to think I could say with certainty that they don’t push the boundaries as far as is depicted in this film, but I’m not so sure about that, either. I suppose when I was shooting news, video technology wasn’t at the point where everyone could afford to buy a camera, so this phenomenon didn’t exist, which also makes me feel somewhat old. It also tells me that we as a society are devolving.