Films are a luxury these days, compared to the old times when they were a commodity. Writing a film review is easy now than it has ever been, as we cherish things that have become a rarity, and moreover, if I tried to write a film review when I watched more than one film a day, there wouldn’t have been enough hours in a day. After probably six months since watching a film, during the Christmas period, I watched Gnomeo and Juliet, and De rouille et d’os of Jacques Audiard. Then this weekend my eyes suddenly fell on a DVD while doing the grocery shopping in Morrisons. The blurb on the jacket suggested a gripping story of a freelance cameraman getting sucked into the underbelly of the LA criminal world. It had a promise of a crime thriller where the amateur cameraman uncovered the vicious criminal gangs. He did, but Nightcrawler was by no means a Hollywood good vs evil story. It is a far darker and sinister storyline that probably broke many stereotypes about Hollywood films produced over the years. It was an uncomfortable film to watch, and the effect is still lingering as I type these words.
Nightcrawler was released in 2014 so there is no spoiler alert here. And just reading these words won’t create the effect the film did. In short, Lou Bloom lives a destitute life in downtown LA, living off odd jobs but his hunger to achieve more, drives him to desperately start looking for newer means. One night as he was turned down a job where he sold stolen material, he drove past an accident scene and found a freelance cameraman filming the scene. Lou learns that by becoming a stringer — a freelance cameraman, he could earn easy cash. He buys a camcorder and a police radio scanner. After a few failed attempts, Lou captures someone shot in the neck and sells the footage to a news channel. There he meets Nina, the news editor. Her penchant for serving the story people want to see, mainly concerning affluent white families as victims in central LA neighbourhood areas gave Lou a clear idea what she’s looking for. As Lou starts to find success, his inner drive to do more, and Nina’s unrelenting support violating ethical boundaries of news reporting makes Lou take more risks, become more dangerous and desperate. He hires an assistant, and soon Lou realised that Nina is as desperate for his videos as he is for achieving something in his life. The film climaxes as they reach the scene of a shooting that would become breaking news, Lou hides the part of the tape showing the gunmen so he could film them getting caught another time, in another neighbourhood. After a shootout, one gunman escapes who is later killed by police after a chase that Lou and his assistant catch live, and Lou manages to trick his assistant in believing the gunman was dead. He gets shot and the gunman faces Lou, filming death of his assistant before police shot the gunman. Police later interrogate Lou but couldn’t prove that he hid the information. On the last scene, he’s seen to be running a new business hiring apprentices.
I remember watching Jake Gyllenhaal in October Sky and over the years, I thought he was Hollywood’s male version of Meg Ryan, having a face that never ages. Paired with the looks, he has a boyish voice that never developed into a baritone, like Tobey MaGuire’s. From that aspect, it was difficult to imagine Jake in a role that is so dark, and creepy. But at the end of the film, I was left wondering whether I’ve just watched the best career performance of Jake. He is a tour de force in Nightcrawler, it is not easy to watch, but that relentlessly uncomfortable feeling was Jake’s success. He lived and breathed in that character, emanating a sense of menace. Lou’s mannerisms, especially his business management parlance in almost every possible situation, paired with his obsessive expressions while covering the crime or accident scenes were uncanny, to say the least, and often monstrous. As he soullessly moved towards achieving one reckless feat to the next, his character shows no compassion or remorse for the victims. To him, they were just rungs of the ladder that will take him high up the corporate echelon he so painstakingly prepared himself for but was never allowed a break. He makes you squirm in disgust and enraged in hate. In the film, Jake looked almost emaciated, his bare arms uncharacteristically thin. I found out later that he lived on a diet of kale chips to lose all the weight. This brings to mind another virtuoso performances by Adrien Brody in The Pianist and Christian Bale in The Fighter, where the actors went to great lengths to mould their physique into the character they were portraying. Jake’s gaunt face, unassuming stature made him blend into the background of the film that all his expressions gained a new dimension. Nightcrawler is all about the superlative performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, and it is definitely worth watching just to watch him.
Yet, Nightcrawler is not just about Jake’s performance, it has plenty more to offer. The script is superb. It’s sleek, at times the suspense was too gripping to handle. And that is paired with fantastic night cinematography of LA, especially the long shots overlooking the city, or the crossroads. The film revolved around three central characters, and Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed played their part brilliantly to let Lou Bloom cast his dark spell on the viewers’ minds. Although a film is remembered by the actors’ performances, it’s the less praised behind the scenes work that makes the film successful. For Nightcrawler, this would be the scriptwriter and the director, for taking up a challenging subject. The film could be classified as Noir, with Jake Gyllenhaal as an anti-hero. It did not try to make him appear psychotic, and most of the Hollywood anti-heroes turn up, nor he dies in the end, nor he finds a sudden sense of morality and becomes the good guy in the end. Lou Bloom is a cutthroat optimist, he doesn’t let anything come between him and his success, he is desperate, and in the end, it shows that he gets away with all his unethical demeanour. A negative character not being punished at the end of the story — where does this stand on good vs evil? A non-ideal end made Lou Bloom more realistic, and thus more frightening. The other stereotype that was broken was the relationship between Lou Bloom and Nina. Hollywood hardly shows older women against younger men, unless it was like The Graduate, where the older female seduces the young actor. In Nightcrawler, Lou blackmailed Nina to get her to sleep with him. There is no love blossoming in there air, but just hard transactional relationship — Lou helps Nina keep her job, and he wanted sex in return. There are certain loopholes in the film that might interest the people who like finding gaffes, such as Lou getting away with hiding footage of the shootout from police, and CCTV evidence would easily have proved that he traced the killers and not the other way around. Also, confiscating his laptop would have shown that he searched for the car number plate. Yet, Nightcrawler will be remembered for the unforgettable acting by Jake Gyllenhaal, not the minor gaps in the storyline.
Finally, like moral of a fable comes a moment when you analyse a film with the present context and decide whether the film succeeds in conveying any message to its viewers that are relevant to our society. From this aspect, I’d hail Nightcrawler to have addressed one of the biggest perils of our society — of warped, directed and suggestive media reporting. Funnily enough, I remembered the Family Guy episode where Peter Griffin steals many Nielsen boxes and bargains with news channels how he wanted all the programmes altered. In reality, Nightcrawler is a stark reminder of the way media manipulates the truth, in order to make news sensational. Rene Russo in Nina personifies the uncouth, greedy media houses, where their viewership is fuelled by panic mongering and misinformation. The unfortunate events of Brexit and Donald Trump victory highlight the role right-wing media played in those two cases. In the case of Brexit, we saw Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express wage a hate campaign against the migrants in the UK and against EU governance. The failure of the Leave campaign to deliver any of the promises only outlined the vacuous media bias towards Leave. They worked on people’s fear, and distrust and created an atmosphere of animosity within the country that has split the country for the foreseeable future. The same has happened in the USA as well, and the consequences much grave than Brexit. The willingness to go any lengths to twist the reality is very prominent in Nightcrawler. Although a sane mind doubts whether a news channel could lower themselves that low just to with some TRP, a present appreciation of the current situation only corroborates the message conveyed in the film. It should serve as a wake-up call to the viewers — or the customers of the media that unless the public collectively rejects the sensationalist media reporting, they will resort to more dangerous means, just as Lou Bloom did in the film, and it could do irreparable damage to the fabric of our society.
The thought that, what we watched in Nightcrawler is happening every single day at every single corner of the world, fills the viewer with an uncomfortable feeling. And that is the success of the film — the uneasiness, the queasy feeling that you get in your mouth after the film is over. Nightcrawler will be one of those films that I will be desperate to watch it again, but will never watch it ever, for the unpalatable truths that film makes us face, and we cannot just eject the disc and think — “It’s only a film”!