‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ news director Nina Formina (Rene Russo) tells Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom as he follows her through the TV news station he has just sold footage to. ‘Think of our newcast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.’
In Dan Gilroy’s thriller Nightcrawler we are thus immersed into the crime-ridden streets of Los Angeles, plunged upon nightfall into a mess of shootings, stabbings and fiery car accidents. Alongside, we meet the eponymous nightcrawlers, freelance video ‘journalists’ who intercept police radio frequencies and scramble to capture such bloody incidents on film to sell to local news stations, ravenous for graphic footage that will drive up their ratings.
Protagonist Lou Bloom ekes out a lonely existence on the margins of this society, making money through stealing from construction sites and other acts of petty theft. He desperately wants a job but his lack of ‘formal education’ (as he puts it) and thoroughly unnerving demeanour make him effectively unemployable. Beneath his Cheshire cat grin he is gaunt and ghoulish; he rarely blinks and recites streams of corporate banalities as if learned by rote. His personality is stamped with an inherent lack of both empathy and fear – one night he happens upon a car accident and wanders ponderously towards the flaming wreck. As a woman is prised out of the vehicle, Lou witnesses a team of nightcrawlers (led by Bill Paxton) swarm around the scene, each gunning for the best angle of the chaos. The closer, the bloodier they can get, the more stations will pay, Lou learns.
His interest is piqued, and after a few false starts he shoots some footage of a fatal carjacking, less refined but far more graphic than that of the experienced nightcrawlers, and Nina can’t snap it up fast enough. Spurred on, Lou expands his enterprise, hiring a poor young man named Rick (played by Riz Ahmed, of Four Lions fame) to act as protégé and dogsbody. As events progress, as Lou sticks his camera into the bloodied faces of shooting victims and runs into active crime scenes, he delves further and further into this thoroughly sinister business, and is willing to do more and more to succeed in it.
The film is a triumph from start to finish. In terms of the central performance, by now it would probably be more remarkable if Gyllenhaal did anything less than praiseworthy, but he has achieved something truly impressive with Lou Bloom. Cinema has had its run of sociopaths over the years, but Bloom – and how he is portrayed – is quite a different beast. At one point Rick tells him he ‘doesn’t understand people’; while it is clear he does not empathise with their emotions, Lou can objectively zero in on their needs and desires with surgical precision. He is a near-perfect manipulator, and can twist a situation to meet his own ends with baffling ease. And while, at the heart of it, we know what kind of person he is, we are shown extraordinarily subtly how he can appear to those around him – how he can be charming, endearing, even their saviour.
Much of the film’s tension – and boy, it’s a nail-biter – comes from Bloom. The rare moments when he snaps are nowhere near as terrifying as when he doesn’t – if you aren’t holding your breath in fear when he simply looks into another character’s eyes and calmly explains why they must do as he says, congratulations: you have nerves of steel. The film is long, but so well-crafted that no scene feels superfluous, and so relentlessly compelling it’s impossible to look away anyway. The climactic scene is practically an exercise in shredding the audience’s nerves – Gilroy knows what he’s doing.
The Drive-esque cinematography – when not splattered with blood – is gorgeous; LA looks simultaneously pitch-black and floodlit, aglow with the lurid reds, blues and yellows of the illuminated city. The whole film has a slight ‘pulp’ touch to it (the movie posters in particular play on this), but at its core is a highly effective satire of the media that necessitates Lou’s actions in the first place, and one that feels very relevant. Yes, Lou is callous and ruthless in acquiring his shots, but Nina and her counterparts are just as unconcerned with moral integrity when choosing what is appropriate to show. A particularly striking scene is one in which two TV presenters perform a live commentary of some quite horrendous footage of a crime Lou has captured (and so speedily delivered that the victims’ next of kin may not yet have been notified). Journalistic ethics just cannot compete with the infallible power of ratings, and the ratings never lie.
Nightcrawler shines a light on our increasing appetite for violent spectacle – I would even imagine that most viewers of the film itself would have liked a few more scenes. If it bleeds, it leads, indeed.