A man with a camera lurks in the bushes outside a lush home in Granada Hills. A grisly triple-homicide has just been committed here. He waits for the perpetrators to escape before skulking in after them. Roaming through the house with his camera, he stops over a dying man, lying prone in a pool of his own blood as he faintly gasps for air. But this man is not here to help. He’s here to get footage, and make a quick buck off the carnage.
In Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir thriller now on Netflix, that man is Louis “Lou” Bloom, the protagonist played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Bloom is an ambitious, fast-talking con man who rattles off faux-motivational talking points about entrepreneurial grit and anecdotal statistics like a robot whose approximate knowledge of human speech comes from a Tony Robbins self-help book. After witnessing a freelance camera crew filming the scene of a car crash, Lou is inspired to become a stringer himself, driving around late at night in Los Angeles to record violent crimes and accidents and sell the footage to local news stations.
After selling his first recording (a bloodied man being resuscitated) to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the morning news director at a local television station, Lou hangs on her every word. He’s eager to learn and even more eager to please. Nina stresses she’s interested in crime, though not all crime. “We find our viewers are more interested in urban crime creeping into the suburbs,” she says. “What that means is a victim, or victims, preferably well-off and white, injured at the hands of the poor or a minority.” But above all, what Nina wants — and what Lou needs to succeed — are incidents of graphic violence that will shock her station’s audiences, play on their fears, and garner their undivided attention. “The best and clearest way that I can phrase it to you Lou, to capture the spirit of what we air, is think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”
As the plot unfolds, we witness Lou thrive in his new career path, amassing a collection of fiery car crashes, gruesome murders, and other seedy clips that he proudly labels and categorizes on his home laptop. The film makes it abundantly clear that Lou’s success as a so-called “nightcrawler” is not in spite of his sociopathic personality, but rather because of it. He feeds on death and tragedy like a carrion buzzard, peeling through the dark winding roads of Los Angeles in his red Dodge Challenger, prowling for his latest prey. There is no low he won’t stoop to to further his own aims, whether it’s aggressively coercing Nina into sleeping with him, lowballing his frazzled assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed), or orchestrating a competitor’s near-fatal car crash and filming his mangled body on a stretcher. When Rick protests, telling him not to film the body because he is “one of them,” Lou counters, “Not anymore, Rick. We’re professionals. He’s a sale.” For Lou, every smile is a show of teeth, every compliment is a veiled threat.
It would be wrong to characterize Nightcrawler as a story of one man’s descent into depravity and horror because in truth, it was never that far a fall for Lou to begin with. If anything, Nightcrawler is both an engrossing dark thriller, complete with beautiful cinematography of Los Angeles and an electrifying night-time car chase finale, and a scathing indictment of the pernicious impact of contemporary news media in shaping stories not to inform or to edify, but rather to exploit and dehumanize their subjects. It’s a powerful film that never moralizes to its audience, but rather compels them to think about how a system that incentivizes a person like Lou ever came to exist in the first place.