By Alan Mattli
It’s a curious satire-cum-pulp fiction vehicle screenwriter Dan Gilroy (Two for the Money, Real Steel) brings to the screen in his directorial debut. While Nightcrawler is obviously concerned with making a more than valid point about the inner workings and the dubious rationale of primarily American media, it is also strangely complicit in the very tactics it seems to be chiding. Particularly during the no-frills, high-tension third act, one could raise the question of whether the film starts catering to the thrill-hungry voyeurs in the cinema audience.
But in Nightcrawler, as in most postmodern media products, the line between straightforward appropriation and ironic deliberation is a fuzzy one at best. In fact, it is extremely difficult to fault writer-director Gilroy for any of his movie’s actions, not least because its deconstruction of America’s 24-hour news cycle culture proves to be so on-point.
Much like Michael Bay’s inferior, if perhaps more daring, satirical crime romp Pain & Gain, the Los Angeles-set Nightcrawler presents us, at its core, with a corrupted version of the American Dream. Jake Gyllenhaal, following up his electrifying performances in End of Watch and Prisoners with one of equal brilliance, plays Lou Bloom, an ambitious, self-confident, fast-talking small-time crook, who knows how to manipulate people, including the viewer, into liking him to such an extent that they will do his bidding, or failing that, settle for an agreeable compromise. One night, passing a highway accident site, Lou comes across a team of “nightcrawlers”; freelance video journalists who patrol the streets of L.A. in search of bloody car accidents and crime scenes, which they film and sell to the numerous local TV news stations desperate for high ratings. So he invests in camera equipment, memorises the city’s police codes in order to be the first to arrive at a scene, hires an assistant (Riz Ahmed of Four Lions fame), and starts filming human misery for cash.
That may sound like a crass simplification but it is what Gilroy’s depiction of the local news business ultimately amounts to. Events that are of little to no informative value to any television audience are headlining Los Angeles’ morning shows because of their body count. Voyeurism is not only accepted but endorsed under the guise of public service; while actual public service is replaced with “narratives”, such as, as Lou’s TV channel contact Nina (Rene Russo) keeps reminding him, that of “urban crime creeping into the suburbs”: “victims should be wealthy and white, perpetrators poor and from a minority”.
Although this particular brand of sardonic satire can be a little too obvious at times (“On TV, it looks so real”), seeing Nightcrawler against the background of the recent protests surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner – and the media coverage of these rallies – is an undeniably poignant experience.
But there is more to the film’s satiric edge, beyond the possibly all too easy indignation at the perverted media. To Gilroy, a voyeurist and racist news culture is just a part of a greater ill pervading American society and culture. When asked whether his goal is to be a news anchor, Lou, himself a director of sorts as he rearranges an accident site at one point, scoffs at the very notion: “I wanna be the guy who owns the station who owns the camera”. The classic dream of becoming a movie star has lost its lustre; what Lou yearns for is a position of corporate power. Indeed, capitalism is pervasive to such a degree in Nightcrawler that it becomes, in a series of scenes reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, the guiding force in Lou’s quest to find a romantic mate.
And even when the movie ultimately embraces the more common tropes of the thriller genre, after Lou secretly films a triple murder and plans to get the men responsible arrested in a camera-friendly way, it remains an arresting watch, courtesy of Robert Elswit’s slick cinematography and John Gilroy’s excellent editing. In his directing debut, Dan Gilroy has managed to successfully blend a crowd-pleasing aesthetic and storyline with a serious comment on what ails Fox News’ America. And that is no unremarkable feat.
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.