Dan Gilroy, writer on such films as The Bourne Legacy and Real Steel, came into his first directorial effort, Nightcrawler, with a very very clear idea of what he wanted to say. Simply saying this film is tense from moment one is an understatement. It also happens to be darkly comic, satirical to near brutality and features a transcendant performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.
Nightcrawler follows the story of go-getter Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) who happens to live on the outside of everything. He's self-taught, speaks in these sort of 80's Tom Cruise truisms and is always on the lookout for something that makes him the next dollar. The film opens with him cutting up a wired fence in an attempt to sell off the scrap metal for a quick buck. The construction foreman he haggles with for a better price eventually settles for paying a bit more though not before Lou asks about applying for a job. He'll even take an unpaid internship as the economic climate necessitiates just gaining experience right now. The foreman scoffs and lets him know, quickly, that he doesn't hire thiefs. That scene establishes, right away, just what type of person Lou Bloom is. His smile is a facade that, over the course of the film, becomes more paper thin. His gaunt features (Gyllenhaal in typical method fashion lost a lot of weight for the role) truly show those eyes. Dead eyes that have nary a spark in them except for the want for that next dollar.
This leads to a revelatory moment on the side of a freeway with a flaming sedan with a driver trapped inside. He pulls off to the side of the road as the accident unfolds behind him and starts to observe. It is around this time that Bill Paxton and his partner roll up in a panel van with cameras. They get in close to the carnage filming every second of it they can. Why? To sell the footage of course. "If it bleeds it leads" is the mantra for all network news it seems and folks like Paxton thrive on the continued cycle of death and mayhem that a city like Los Angeles can offer. The epiphany in that moment for Lou is quite clear. "I can do this!" he's clearly thinking. Lou buys a handheld camera, a police scanner and starts hitting the pavement.
Bloom's approach to being (what we're later told is the term for them) a Nightcrawler is simple. Get in as close as possible to the blood and get it in frame. It isn't artful but it is graphic. It isn't long before he finds a kindred spirit in Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a station director for a woefully underperforming local newstation. Nina has long since had the last bits of decency stamped out of her thanks to the machine that is the news media. She is just as far down the path as Bloom is. The relationship starts as mentor/mentee with Nina speaking frankly about what and what not to shoot. Don't bother with low-income neighborhoods. Nobody cares. Focus on the more affluent white parts of town and showcase the creep of urban crime into the suburbs. The bloodier the better is always best. The satirical bite of the film start to really be felt in Lou's frequent dealings with the news director Nina and her constant lust for the worst sorts of footage.
His pursuit of the next big clip for the lead story and his lack of inhibition in getting in the way of EMTs/police officers at the scenes of crimes and accidents (almost to the point of interfering with them doing their job at times) becomes a full-on career. He even hires a hapless assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) to help him navigate the mean streets and serve as a secondary cameraman for 30 bucks a night. Lou catches the attention of competitors along the way who even attempt to co-opt the unhinged Bloom instead of fighting him. Lou, in the sort of way that one talks to their dry-cleaner about not putting too much starch on their shirts, tells his rival, "I feel like grabbing you by your ears and yelling, "I'm not fucking interested."" We already knew from the word go that there was something off-kilter about Lou but as he begins to taste success the sociopath in him really shines through.
If Gilroy had strayed too close to Bloom in all of this it would have come off as cheap delight at the expense of other's pain in trying to tell this story. It, wisely, remains further back and more detached in approaching the manipulative Bloom. He will do anything and destroy anyone in his way to the "top". Gilroy gives us brief moments to delight in the sheer gall of Lou and his line of work but mostly we're made to feel horrified at the unfolding insanity. Lou's dogged pursuit of more money and more exposure causes him to start interfering directly. Few films ever feel so distinctly original yet like the sort of film that another filmmaker could have made as well. Michael Mann could have easily told the story of Lou Bloom with the same sort of craft and precision.
Nightcrawler isn't just a good film but a great one. Every scene is meticulously plotted and shot, framed with the expert eyes of Paul Thomas Anderson's usual cinematographer, Robert Elswit. The messages of the news being exploitative and journalists in this day and age lacking a moral compass is nothing new. It is, however, unique to see a man could be seen as normal twist the insatiable bloodlust of the media into a means to an end. We are revolted by this awful person yet delight, if quietly, at his triumphs.