It has not been a good month for the news media in the movies I have been reviewing. In Birdman, the New York Times theater critic is shown to be unprofessional, promising to write a negative review to kill a play that she hasn’t seen. In Gone Girl, sensationalist news journalists are shown to be easily manipulated into writing a narrative that ends up covering up a ghastly crime. And now we have Nightcrawler, a movie about a petty thief who finally finds his vocation as a freelance cameraman selling footage to a local news station in Los Angeles. There seems to be a shortage of crusading journalists this month, Kill the Messenger aside.
The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, the most unscrupulous business-lingo speaking sociopath to appear in a film since Parick Bateman in American Psycho. When the movie opens, he is making a living stealing scrap metal and assaulting a security guard to take his watch. As a thief, he is not a man to pass up an opportunity, but like all illegal trades, there is a ceiling to what he does. Because he is dealing with stolen goods, his ability to negotiate payment is limited, and he finds himself unable to be hired for legitimate work. Sure, the scrap metal dealer will buy manhole covers from him knowing that they are probably stolen, but that same dealer will not hire him. Even if Louis presents himself as an ideal employee, no one wants to hire a thief. At the margins of society, Louis Bloom can only be an opportunist living from small-time theft to small time theft. The movie follows Louis as he implements a plan to change that situation, becoming a legitimate businessman in the process.
Louis stumbles upon an bloody accident one night and meets Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), one of the nightcrawlers: freelance video cameramen who use police scanners to locate the particularly gruesome crime scenes, car crashes and fires that will lead the morning news the next morning. Louis is aware that there is money to be made in this line of work, and because he doesn’t really care about the human dramas that unfold in front of the camera and doesn’t respect legal and personal boundaries, this is a career opening for him. He thinks big. Almost from the beginning he presents himself as more than a minor player in a world of freelancers. He is a walking corporation with strategic business plans and HR policy manuals in his head. When he isn’t stealing, you see, he has been educating himself on the works of corporate inspiration. He talks like he has absorbed every TED Talk, free business course and media blog on the Internet.
Like many movies about the ethically challenged, Nightcrawlers veers between satire and moral horror story. It helps that the subject matter that Louis is chasing is particularly gruesome, but even if this were a movie about a technology start up, there would be times when an audience member who works in the corporate world would find Louis’ behavior frightening. That said, I found myself laughing during the movie more than I should have, especially in the scenes where Gyllenhaal is spouting businesspeak at his browbeaten ‘Intern and Executive Vice President,’ Rick (Riz Ahmed) and negotiating a sexual business partnership with a cynical and unprincipled local news editor (Rene Russo).
I did feel guilty for laughing, however. Louis Bloom is hero who is very difficult to like even when he is being charming. The audience is supposed to like him but not want to be like him, and that creates a tension that is difficult to maintain for an entire film. There are suspenseful scenes when Gyllenhaal breaks into houses and rearranges crime scenes to frame better shots where I couldn’t decide whether I should hope that he was successful, or hope that the police would mistake him for a criminal and arrest him, or better yet, shoot him.
While Louis is rewarded in the end for his shamelessness, I didn’t feel rewarded by the ending. Just when I thought he had finally crossed one boundary too many, a police investigation into his activities just goes away for reasons that aren’t well explained in the film. I had the same problem with the ending of Gone Girl – there are more than a few corpses in the movie whose demise the police should be investigating-but the police stop so that the film can end on a cynical note. It makes the film seem savvy but unsatisfactory. The police, it seems, have suffered the same fate as news journalists in films lately. If the honest crusading journalist is nowhere to be found in film these days, the dogged police investigator appears to have met an untimely end, too.
***1/2 of Five.