“If you want to win the lottery you’ve got to make the money to buy a ticket.” It’s a phrase oft repeated by Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the unblinking, laser-focused protagonist of Dan Gilroy’s Toronto International Film Festival hit Nightcrawler. Every generation a film comes along to reflect culture’s misplaced values or misunderstanding of where importance should lie. From Travis Bickle to Patrick Bateman, film audiences have regularly been introduced to characters that exist to exploit, intentionally or not, the holes in society. Regardless of their actions, often quite monstrous, these characters’ actions are championed as success stories.
Lou Bloom is no different; his story is also one of great success. He appears as if from nowhere and his shades of morality are quickly made apparent, after he steals a bike to buy a camera. Lou will do about anything to achieve his goals and it just so happens that his goals are nothing short of winning the lottery. After a close encounter with a deadly after-hours accident on the freeway, Lou becomes obsessed with the idea of joining the ranks of Los Angeles’s “nightcrawlers,” cameramen who chase after police reports of grisly crimes for footage they can sell to morning news programs. “If it bleeds it leads,” is the mantra here and these stations are willing to back up their words with a hefty sum of money.
There is something appealing about Lou, despite his ethical lapses, in how smoothly he recites business advice seemingly lifted from self-help books. What he says makes a lot sense and in another life and with a lot more charisma Lou could be a motivational speaker. Still, when he begins manipulating bodies and circumstances to get the better shot or the first scoop for the morning news, his interpretation of business ethics becomes increasingly disturbing. Lou scrounges the internet for resources and methods of succeeding in business as if it was his parent and worships capitalism as his religion. If anything, he’s the poster-child for the Millennial psychopath.
Lou Bloom’s business quickly blossoms, thanks in major part to his manipulation of reality, and allows him to hire a partner off the street, Rick (Riz Achmed), and work with a news producer (Rene Russo). Both immediately buy into Lou’s hypnotic sales pitches and business-speak mumbo-jumbo. Soon Lou and Rick are zipping around the vacant, twilight streets of Los Angeles in the pursuit of the freshest blood to hit the pavement.
Jake Gyllenhaal is in a midst of an acting renaissance after turning in several powerful performances in Enemy, Prisoners, and End of Watch. Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom is his strongest yet. Gyllenhaal’s sunken eyes, revealed by a loss of over thirty pounds, stare unblinkingly towards Lou’s ultimate goal. Scenes that feature Lou turning the tables on his desperate partners showcase the character at his most inhumane. Yet, Gyllenhaal imbues Bloom with a certain amount of charm and, when alone, humanity. It is absolutely terrifying to see that such a heartless character could be even remotely human.
Cinematographer Robert Elswit (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, There Will Be Blood) captures Los Angeles’s nighttime glow and utilizes it to illuminate the city and characters with horror movie-like underlighting. This approach transforms Nightcrawler’s nighttime city sequences into a trip into another world, one that is very much a character in the film. Elswit utilizes shallow depth-of-field to draw the viewer’s eye to the viewfinders on both Lou’s and the news team’s cameras. This effectively draws the eye directly into the action being filmed and replicates the lean-in nature of watching a gruesome news story unfold over breakfast.
Writer/director Dan Gilroy’s script is careful not to judge Lou’s actions, ultimately portraying him as a successful and shrewd businessman. This particular viewpoint might be Gilroy’s sharpest critique of not only our culture’s panic-inducing news coverage but of capitalism itself. In a dog-eat-dog society that rewards ruthlessness in business over ethics, Lou is the monster the system creates and rewards.
Dan Gvozden is a MA student in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. He received his B.F.A in Film/Television Production at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He writes film criticism professionally for a number of newspapers and his blog, Grind My Reels (www.grindmyreels.com), and was a co-founder and programming director of the Annapolis Film Festival. For the past several years he taught film and photography at Severn School and co-hosted the television program “Reel Talk with Brian Roan and Dan Gvozden.” In his spare time he is the Editor-in-Chief of a blog detailing everything anyone would want to know (and more) about Spider-Man called Superior Spider-Talk (www.superiorspidertalk.com).