In 1976, Paddy Chayefsky wrote Network, a poison pen letter to network news that was also prescient in its predictions of where the medium was headed. In 1976 it was a satire; today it’s very close to history. A bit of the spirit of Network is present in screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s first project that he’s also directed, Nightcrawler, which casts a jaundiced eye at local news. Rather than satire, Gilroy has crafted a creepy thriller. Like the proverbial train wreck, Nightcrawler is mesmerizing so you can’t turn away, even as it turns your stomach.
Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a walking/talking compendium of self-actualization programs. While he has huge dreams, he lives in a tiny studio apartment and watches TV by splicing into a neighbor’s satellite signal. He makes what money he has by stealing copper wire, manhole covers, and chain-link fence that he sells to scrap metal companies. By chance one night he happens upon an accident just after it occurs and watches as two CHP officers save a woman from a burning car. Within seconds a van pulls up and Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) hops out. Loder is a stinger for local LA news who chases down police radio calls to get footage that he then auctions off to the local outfits. Louis is entranced by Loder’s work and tries to talk himself into a job, though Loder shuts him down and races off to a new call.
While he has no experience, Louis has a singular focus on a goal and no restraints on doing whatever he can to accomplish it. He manages to hustle up a camera and a police scanner to set himself up as a stringer. At first he’s pathetically bad, but soon he get bloody footage of a carjacking victim. He takes it to Channel 6, where he meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the overnight news editor. Nina buys the footage and gives Louis some suggestions on how to improve his work.
Louis becomes an exclusive stringer for Nina and Channel 6, which has been mired in last place in the ratings. He takes on an intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), to help with directions while driving and filming the stories. Louis isn’t above moving a body to make a shot more compelling, and as he becomes more successful he takes greater risks. His success causes friction with other stingers like Loder. But you really don’t want to get on Lou’s bad side.
Writer/director Gilroy is the son of Frank D. Gilroy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter who wrote “The Subject was Roses” and “The Only Game in Town.” He’s recently had successes with Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy. Working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Good Night and Good Luck, Magnolia), Gilroy gives the viewer the best view of night-time Los Angeles since Collateral. The movie is a family affair, as Dan’s older brother Tony, a screenwriter and director himself (The Bourne Legacy, Michael Clayton; screenwriter for the other three Bourne movies), serves as a producer, and Dan’s twin brother John edited the movie. John had also edited Miracle and Michael Clayton, among others.
Another family connection is that for 22 years, Dan Gilroy has been married to Rene Russo. After an incredibly busy 1990s, Russo had only done a couple of minor projects in the 2000s. She came back as Thor’s mother in 2011, and got to kick some butt in Thor: The Dark World last year, but with Nightcrawler she’s back in the form she demonstrated in Outbreak, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Thomas Crown Affair. Her scenes with Gyllenhaal are wonderful, especially as she slowly realizes she’s made a deal with the devil.
But the movie belongs to Gyllenhaal. He lost twenty pounds for the role so that Louis Bloom would physically look like a hungry predator. At first he’s the socially awkward hustler, but as the movie progresses you see the sociopath beneath. Yet you can’t look away. Gyllenhaal is an actor who took risks in early films like Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain. After a one-time misstep with the failed big-budget Prince of Persia, he’s been on a roll with his roles, with solid work in Source Code, Prisoners, and End of Watch, among others. Nightcrawler shows the earlier risk taker is still there, and the result is mesmerizing.
As the local anchors in the movie often say when introducing Bloom’s footage, viewer discretion is advised. This is an intense and often bloody thriller. It’s also a fascinating character study as well as a cautionary tale. As Bloom points out in the course of the film, local news now devotes about 20 seconds on average to community news, politics, etc., but crime stories – preferably in nice neighborhoods where homeowners are threatened by outsiders – now command 5 minutes of every local news half-hour broadcast. Take out the commercials and that’s about a third of the available time.
Maybe it is time to turn away from the train wreck – if we still can.