Netflix UK film review: Nightcrawler
Simon Kinnear | On 02, Mar 2015Reading time: 4 mins
Director: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed
Watch Nightcrawler online in the UK: Netflix UK / TalkTalk TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
The night can be a lonely place, especially if you’re out in the city, on the streets, with only criminals and sociopaths for company. How ironic that cinema – a medium founded on light – has such a fascination with the literal and figurative shadows, yet it’s here that the movies have forged some of their most fascinating characters, from Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle to Ryan Gosling’s Driver. Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is a strong addition to the canon, an enthusiastic go-getter who has left his moral by the kerb as he slithers into the gutter.
When we first meet him, Lou is desperately trying to find a job to match his sense of self-worth, learnt from the second-rate online courses that he parrots robotically and incessantly, and filtered through his wide-eyed, coldly logical and entirely un-empathetic observation of his fellow human beings’ venality. Actually, that’s not true: when we first meet him, he’s a petty thief, not above mugging a security guard for his watch.
All Lou needs is a profession where his particular set of skills will come in handy. Enter the ‘nightcrawling’ trade, the camera-wielding bottom feeders who prowl the streets, listening to police radios for crimes and accidents they can film and sell on to the news stations. These modern mercenaries don’t fire the bullets, but they lovingly trace their trajectory, framed for maximum on-air voyeurism.
For all its astute, timely observations over the ethical slippage of 24 hour news, with its race to the bottom to find the grisliest, most sensational footage, writer/director Dan Gilroy’s Oscar-nominated film is strangely out-of-time. It could have been written at any point during the past 40 years, bearing kinship with the likes of Network or the career of Scorsese – as well as Taxi Driver, Bloom bears echoes of The King Of Comedy’s fame-at-all-costs disassociation and Bringing Out The Dead’s corrupted witness to the night. Bloom is so old-school that he drives to the station to hand over his footage; he has to be told that it can be uploaded. Yet this is a film in which smartphones are conspicuous by their absence; the primary tool of Bloom’s trade is a police scanner.
It’s a film of the night, shot with the woozy, caffeinated rush of tarmac and neon. Indeed, with Gyllenhaal’s eyes popping out of their sockets, cinematographer Robert Elswit captures the reflection of the city in his eyeballs, as if Bloom is entranced by the night itself in the way that cartoon characters have dollar bills in their eyes. While wealth is nominally on his agenda – his first act as a success is to upgrade his car – Bloom is driven by more oblique demons.
Gyllenhaal has rarely been better, wiry and wired in every scene. Other characters exist only to highlight his ruthlessness, be it Bill Paxton’s rival, Ahmed’s dim, naïve protege and – best of all – Russo as the news boss whose Faustian pact gives Bloom the green light to further madness, while sending her into a tawdry hell of sexual subjugation.
Is there a story to go with it? With anti-heroes now a staple of the TV schedules, there’s the sense that Gilroy is reclaiming such dark (k)night errants for the big screen. Nightcrawler could easily double as a pilot for a TV series, or as the highlights of a whole show. After establishing Bloom’s talent and drive, Gilroy skips through his rise, one montage replacing several episodes. Then, it’s a matter of showing how far the man will go for a scoop, the plot snapping into focus with an extended story about a home invasion that would make a great season finale. The open ending, too, hints at a character with plenty of misadventures to come.
But the leanness and focus of a film suits Bloom better, and the breathless narrative short-cuts blend seamlessly with the queasy questions being asked not only of the character, but all of us for paying his pay check. Throughout, screens within screens mediate what we see, the bigger picture of real life literally slipping out of focus in favour of the narrow viewpoint chosen by Bloom. Just as Russo prefers her footage ideally shorn of context so that the channel can create its own narratives, so too has Bloom rearranged his life to suit his obsessions.
Nightcrawler is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.