by Glenn Lovell
“If it bleeds, it leads” is the credo of reporters at a ratings-strapped Los Angeles TV station in the aptly titled “Nightcrawler,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a creepy but persistent freelance videographer who feeds the station footage of car accidents and street crimes. Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom is right at home in this grim, neo-noir setting. Half a rung up from a paparazzo, he scourers both tough and tony neighborhoods with a police scanner, often arriving at the scene of a pile-up or shooting before the cops.
Gyllenhaal obviously shed a few pounds to play Bloom. He’s leaner, pastier, more tightly wound than he’s been before. He’s like something that has just slithered out from under a rock, a lizard hopped up on NoDoz, its eyes darting back and forth so it doesn’t miss a thing, its lips parted in a superior half-smile. When he’s about to spring into action, Bloom pulls his hair back and cinches it in a scalp lock. A nice touch in a movie full of nice touches. It’s code for “Let’s join the hunt!”
Gyllenhaal’s Bloom reminded me of no less a denizen of the underworld than Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” Indeed, “Nightcrawler,” written and directed by veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy, strikes me as the best Martin Scorsese film not directed by Scorsese. It that good, that assured … that unshakable. It scores as both urban thriller and “Network”-like comment on the media. Bloom and the female news director who leads with his grisly stories have a symbiotic relationship: he uses the station to launch his new company; she snaps up his footage, sometimes orchestrated for maximum shock value, to pad the station’s lagging ratings on sweeps week.
Upon their first meeting, Nina Romina (Rene Russo) fills Louis in on KWLA’s profile: “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” The deceptively nerdy Louis likes the sound of this. A “graduate” of online business seminars he can recite by rote, he has always lived by his wits. So he’s several moves ahead of Nina. This becomes brutally clear when the two meet for dinner and Louis lays out his business plan, which includes swapping breaking news videos for sexual favors. When Nina feigns indignation, Louis runs down her resumé. “You’ve never stayed anywhere more than two years.”
How cynical is “Nightcrawler”? At least as cynical as Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” and Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool,” both of which reminded us that the media never went broke underestimating the intelligence or tolerance for gore of the public. When an assistant winces and questions the ethicacy of leading the evening news with a blood-splattered accident victim, Nina not only brushes him aside but also prompts the anchors to give the footage their hard-sell commentary. They’re only too happy to oblige.
Like Travis Bickle, Bloom is a product of his times. One need only tune into CNN on an off-night to know that this is true. Whatever the catastrophe or tragic event, the producers and person behind the desk will milk it for the ultimate sensationalism. If Bloom didn’t supply the bloody inserts, someone else would. He’s slaking our thirst for the ghoulish.
Don’t be put off by this editorializing. “Nightcrawler” doesn’t play as a lecture on the abuses of news gatherers. First and foremost it’s a ripping good thriller with plenty of action and another moody, nerve-jangling score by James Newton Howard. The story arc takes us from Bloom nervously ducking under his first crime-scene tape to happening upon The Big Story, which, like earlier roadside accidents, is calculatingly milked for maximum payoff.
Besides Nina, played all out by Russo as someone who soon realizes she has finally met more than her match, the narrative includes a veteran photographer (Bill Paxton) angry about getting scooped and Bloom’s dim but amiable kid apprentice (Riz Ahmed). The latter is easily cajoled into risking life and limb for a vague promise of advancement down the line.
But as it should be, this is Gyllenhaal’s baby ‒ and the actor runs with it. Remember his work as the delusional rodeoer in “Brokeback Mountain” and the plodding small-town detective in last year’s “Prisoners”? As good as he was in those roles, his performance here is totally unexpected. His Bloom is a ballsy go-getter we can’t help admiring for his temerity and resourcefulness, even as we recoil at his cold-bloodedness. If Denzel Washington can win an Oscar for his psycho cop in “Training Day,” why not Gyllenhaal for this camera-toting sociopath?
NIGHTCRAWLER ✮✮✮✮ With Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton. Directed, written by Dan Gilroy. 117 min. Rated R (for violence, grisly accident scenes, profanity)