Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
Movies love to show us sociopaths. There’s something inherently fascinating about that particular flavor of mental illness. A film like Nightcrawler takes that idea and runs very hard with it, taking the idea of sociopathy in some very new directions. Our main character is remorseless, relentless, and driven and willing to do anything to get what he wants, but for all of that, he’s also not a serial killer, at least not specifically.
Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief who rips off construction sites for copper wiring and other metal items that he can sell to a scrap yard. He attempts unsuccessfully to turn this into a job. Later that same evening, he sees the results of a car accident and also sees two men led by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) filming. Loder is a stringer, filming crimes and accidents and selling the footage to the highest bidder from the local news teams. Lou is inspired by this and decides that this is what he wants to do. The next day, he steals a racing bike and trades them at a pawnshop for a camcorder and a police scanner and starts his own stringing career. Lou makes an enemy of Loder when he gets too close to the aftermath of a shooting, getting them both kicked off the scene. While Loder’s footage is clearer and better, Lou managed to get much closer to the victim, and parlays that into his first sale to a local news broadcast produced by Nina Romina (Rene Russo). He finds himself immediately attracted to Nina despite her being considerably older than he is and more or less begins selling to her exclusively. She gives him some basic tips—bloody and scary sells, and urban crime in good neighborhoods or the suburbs sells the best. Suddenly with a real income, Lou upgrades his camera and his car and brings in Rick Carey (Riz Ahmed) as a very low paid “intern” to help him on his nightly searches for footage.
None of this, beyond Lou’s odd personality, indicates just how perverse he is as a person, but we’re not long from that happening. At a crash scene, Lou moves the body of a victim to make for a better shot. Eventually, Joe Loder offers him a job running his second van, which Lou declines. Later that evening, Loder beats him to a major story, leading Lou to sabotage Loder’s van, which leads to a crash and Loder being seriously injured.
That same night, Lou and Rick respond to a report of a disturbance, and as they pull up, they hear shots fired. Lou is already filming and gets footage of two men leaving a house, managing to get good shots of their faces and of their license plate. Lou then enters the house and gets footage of a crime scene that involves three dead bodies. Naturally, this attracts the attention of the police, who want the footage. Lou gives them an edited tape that does not include the faces of the criminals or the license plate. He then tracks down the criminals and begins to follow them, knowing that he will have an exclusive on the probably shootout and arrest as well as the potential reward money for helping to apprehend the criminals.
I won’t spoil the last 20 minutes of the film except to say that they are the true evidence of just how much of a sociopath Lou really is. We also learn that for her part, Nina Romina is something of a sociopath herself. Whatever it takes to get the good lead, right?
Lou Bloom is a unique cinematic creation. It’s also the best thing I’ve seen Jake Gyllenhaal do. This is a truly terrifying performance, but it is simultaneously completely mesmerizing. When Gyllenhaal is on the screen, no one else needs to be, because he is always the focus, even when he’s not talking. This is a character who gets whatever he wants by maneuvering himself in to a position of power and simply claiming his right to take what is his. There are certainly scarier film creations than Lou Bloom, but few who can match his coldness, emotionlessness, and complete lack of empathy.
This is also a beautifully made film. A great deal of the footage here (if not all of it) is shot digitally, and it is gorgeous. Even if the story were not as compelling as it is, this would be a film worth seeing just for the visual style.
It’s the lack of emotion that truly makes the film work, though. Nightcrawler is almost clinical in how it depicts the terrible things that it shows us. It looks like a film that J.G. Ballard would write if he wrote screenplays instead of really disturbing novels. The coldness works, though, because it highlights just how mentally unwell Lou is.
There are still a number of 2014 movies I haven’t seen yet, but I can pretty much guarantee that when I look at a few of the Oscar categories from this year, I’m going to wonder why Nightcrawler was snubbed.
Why to watch Nightcrawler: It goes just as far as it should and no further.
Why not to watch: It will shake your faith in humanity.