My reaction going into this one was very simple: “What the hell is Nightcrawler?”

The title told me absolutely nothing. The poster told me absolutely nothing. The trailer told me absolutely nothing. Sure, I could tell that it was a vehicle for Jake Gyllenhaal (who produces as well as stars), but again, that told me absolutely nothing.

My expectations were at rock bottom until the movie actually came out to rave reviews. And to my surprise, I must agree that it is in fact very good.

Nightcrawler tells the story of Louis Bloom, played by Gyllenhaal. We first meet Louis cutting chain link wire off a fence in a Los Angeles railyard. When Louis is approached by some rent-a-cop security guard, Louis beats the guy up and steals his watch. Louis then takes his stolen chain link wire — and other materials! — to a construction manager, who then buys the scrap for below market price. And then Louis has the balls to ask this manager for a job. Even if it’s an unpaid internship. Quoth the manager: “I’m not hiring a fucking thief.”

That, in a nutshell, is everything you need to know about this character.

Louis is a completely immoral sociopath. He’s so laser-focused on his plans and his wants that absolutely nothing else registers. The guy acts entirely on ambition, without the least bit of regard for legality, morality, ethics, integrity, compassion for others, or even common sense. If Louis has any thought for the consequences of his actions, how others might be affected, or what objections anyone else could possibly have, he doesn’t seem to care. Yet Louis is so deceptively clever that he somehow manages to get his way no matter how many people get pissed off about it.

One of the many reasons why Louis rubs so many people the wrong way is because so much of his dialogue is comprised of motivational platitudes about success and determination. It’s like corporate rhetoric is his native tongue. Moreover, he recites them in a creepy and heightened way that seems inherently untrustworthy, like everything about him is fake. The guy never even blinks, for God’s sake. So either Louis doesn’t really believe a word he’s saying or he’s a man unfamiliar with how people normally talk.

There’s a point in the movie when one character tells Louis that he just doesn’t understand people. Louis counters, suggesting that maybe he just doesn’t like people. That possibility has some terrifying implications, given how the movie unfolds.

Early in the movie, Louis stumbles onto a car crash. The accident is quickly visited by a couple of “stringers,” also known as “nightcrawlers” (one of whom is a veteran played by Bill Paxton). These are the people who swoop in to get video footage for news broadcasts while all the union cameramen are asleep. If they can get there before the police arrive and cordon off the crime scene, even better. Also of note is that these cameramen are freelancers, selling their footage to whichever channel pays highest. Perhaps most importantly, stringers tend to follow violent crimes, since those can easily be found by way of a police scanner. Plus, gory images of violent crimes tend to be good for ratings, so news networks will pay through the nose for that stuff.

If you’ve been paying attention, you should already have guessed that a career of chasing after violent crimes and capturing them on tape for TV broadcast meshes very nicely with Louis’ brand of unhinged crazy. He’s making money off the blood and suffering of others, breaking all sorts of laws and rules to get the absolute perfect shot, making enemies everywhere he goes, and he never even begins to give the smallest of fucks. This begs the question of just how far he’ll go, sinking to unfathomable depths even as he climbs up the ladder. Yes, that’s a mixed metaphor, but you get my point.

Then there’s Nina Romina, played by Rene Russo. She’s a news director working for the lowest-rated local news station in LA. Her stance on the news is very clear: If the network is legally capable of broadcasting a story that gets people riled up and tuning in, she’ll do it. Naturally, her amoral views blend nicely with Louis’ immoral methods, so Louis agrees to a “first look” deal with Nina. The catch, of course, is that Nina may not realize exactly what she’s dealing with. This leads the both of them to get very confrontational with each other regarding what they want and how much leverage they have.

(Side note: It may be of interest to know that Rene Russo is married to Dan Gilroy, the writer who makes his directorial debut with this picture. The film was also co-produced by older brother Tony Gilroy and edited by fraternal twin brother John Gilroy. Oh, and niece Carolyn Gilroy appears in a cameo role. Quite the family affair, no?)

Getting back to Louis, there’s no denying that he’s an absolutely despicable protagonist. Yet that’s played in such a genius way that it works in the movie’s favor. After all, the film is about our right to privacy and how our personal tragedies can be used for the entertainment and profit of others. More importantly, it’s about how the news tends to inflate and exaggerate events, less concerned with informing and educating than getting viewers energized over a blood-chilling storyline. That message gets clearer and the point gets sharper as Louis and Nina sink deeper into depravity. In fact, there are times when the message is pushed to the point of caricature and the dialogue becomes ridiculously blunt, but those moments are just brief enough that I’m willing to let it slide. And anyway, it’s still interesting to watch all the same.

What’s more, the film offers quite a few supporting characters to provide a more rational counterpoint. There’s Frank (Kevin Rahm), an editor who vocally objects to Nina’s treatment of the news no matter how many times she shoots him down. There’s Detective Fronteiri (Michael Hyatt), who takes serious umbrage with Louis breaking laws and obstructing justice so he can make money off of dead bodies.

But the most prominent sounding board for Louis’ mania has to be Rick (Riz Ahmed), the poor sap who answered Louis’ want ad for an assistant. Rick and Louis are alike in that they’ll both put in hard work to make a living, but that’s where the similarities end. Where Louis is ambitious and always thinks a dozen moves ahead, Rick lives hand-to-mouth without the luxury of thinking past his next paycheck. Moreover, Louis is very smart with a strangely intimidating personality, so he has a knack for negotiating with people and getting his way. Rick has absolutely neither Louis’ intelligence nor his gift of gab, but that doesn’t stop Rick from trying to learn. Basically, Rick shows just how fucked up Louis is, both in how Louis treats him and in what Louis shapes him into.

The actors all do fine work, but of course this is Gyllenhaal’s show. And god damn, what a show it is. I almost feel sorry for all the fine cast members who get acted off the screen by Gyllenhaal’s unearthly repugnant yet irresistably magnetic performance as the main character. A lot of credit is also due to writer/director Dan Gilroy, who beautifully depicts LA as the sort of uncaring purgatory where this story could only take place. The visuals are beautiful across the board, especially in how the film shoots Louis’ brand new late-model bright red muscle car. That climactic car chase was creative and exciting in a way that I haven’t seen in recent memory.

It’s too early to tell if Nightcrawler is a serious awards contender, but it’s absolutely a film worth seeing. Dan Gilroy presents a compelling directorial debut and a script that presents pitch-black (if perhaps a little too blunt) satire on the news media and our collective lust for violence. Also, Gyllenhaal’s performance is worth the ticket price all by itself.

If you can stomach a film with an unrepentantly awful protagonist, definitely give it a look.

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