I watched NIGHTCRAWLER back-to-back with FOXCATCHER. So far I’ve been able to keep the titles straight in my head though, haven’t mixed them up like I still do with RISE OF THE/LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS. But it’s not just the titles that are vaguely similar. This is another story about a bizarre, unfeeling weirdo pretending to be a human. The biggest differences from John Du Pont are 1) no fake nose 2) this guy comes from a working class perspective; he’s introduced sneaking around stealing copper to sell for scrap, like a junkie 3) he’s the protagonist.
It takes place in L.A and mostly at night, so it’s kind of like a noir. Jake Gyllenhaal (HIGHWAY, PRINCE OF PERSIA) plays Lou Bloom, the weirdo in question. I liked him so much in PRISONERS that I’ll see a movie just for him now, so I was excited for this even before the acclaim. Lou is the kind of weirdo who (correctly) thinks he can just walk wherever he wants to if he acts like he belongs there. When he’s driving home one night and sees a flaming car wreck on the side of the freeway he just pulls over, gets out and walks up to watch firemen trying to pull the driver out of the wreckage. You know, just curious. Wanted to see what all the fuss was.
When he learns he can make a living listening to a police scanner, chasing down these tragedies and shoving a camera in there, it quickly becomes clear that he has a natural talent for it. He’s not only completely willing to get in the way of cops and paramedics in life and death situations, he’ll also walk into a house where a shooting has taken place, film the bodies, move things around to make the shots more compelling. Here, get this happy photo of the victim next to this bullet hole. Perfect.
So it’s a story about his meteoric rise in this dirty business. He’s a nightcrawler, driving around the city from dusk till dawn looking for tragedy like a guy on the lawn with a flashlight looking for bait for his fishing trip. And with all the class and integrity of the worms filling up his jar. But you have to do all the judging on your own, the movie refuses to do it. It acts like it’s one of these movies about a scrappy visionary entrepreneur dipping his bootstraps in elbow grease, getting out some nails and plywood and building an empire from the ground up. When Lou turns down rival Bill Paxton’s offer to team up I instinctively got a “ha ha, stick it to him!” feeling before remembering that both of these guys are sleazeballs who should be deeply ashamed of themselves.
After one particularly disgusting act of soul-lessness at the scene of a fatal car accident the score seems kind of upbeat, like it would be if he were some sort of genius finding great inspiration. It might as well be the scene in IMITATION GAME where Alan Turing and friends figure out how to narrow down the possibilities and break the Nazi code. Except it’s a guy dragging a dead body away from a car so he can get a clearer shot.
Renee Russo (LETHAL WEAPONs 3–4) plays a not-very-moral if-it-bleeds-it-leads type TV news producer who Lou starts bringing his footage to. The more his material requires viewer warnings and hesitant clearance by the legal experts the more excited she gets. She asks him for stuff that pushes a narrative of urban crime pushing into the suburbs and threatening affluent, preferably white people. Not because she’s trying to push a racist agenda, but because she knows people love that shit. Race and class paranoia sells shampoo and shit. The news industrial complex.
That’s the media satire angle of the story. Good stuff, but I was even more intrigued by Lou’s impressive collection of inspirational business platitudes. He’s always going on about his hard work and being a faster learner and what makes a good employee or why you aren’t successful or why being willing to take on an internship will open up new opportunities. After haggling about the price of stolen wire he starts pitching himself to the buyer for a job or internship. Later Russo asks if he went to school and he proudly says no, he just likes to read about things, he spends all day online. It doesn’t seem like we actually see him online all day, that’s not really illustrated, but it’s a good explanation of that part of his obnoxious personality. He’s reading some dumbass websights about job interview tips and business philosophy and following every stupid word about asserting himself and being a go-getter and all this shit.
I don’t know, maybe it’s just all the creepy voyeurism, but I got a bit of a De Palma vibe from this one. And a touch of CRASH-era Cronenberg, that feeling of secret things going on at night, witnessing something you’re not supposed to know about. And of course I thought about FACES OF DEATH and those traumatic driver’s ed films that wove actual shots of gory accidents into narrative stories about driver safety.
Not that this does that. That would be fucked up. But this character’s job is pretty similar to that, with less educational value.
You hear what it’s about, you probly figure it’s gonna be a thriller, and sure, he does get involved in a bit of a plot. There is some suspense, some danger, some lying to the police when they show up at his apartment to interview him. But for it to be BLOW OUT or something he’d have to have some idea of right and wrong, he finds out about some bad shit and he’s compelled to try to do the right thing. That is not something that would ever, ever happen to Lou Bloom. He has no morals whatsoever. He doesn’t even have laurels, because they sound too similar to morals. His moral compass never had a needle on it. It would never in a million years occur to him to try to do the right thing, he’s just not that type of guy. He’s a full-on career man, he thinks he’s the good guy because he gets work. He has absolutely no clue that he’s a scumbag.
So it takes its time getting to the intrigue stuff, and I’m not even sure it needed to go there. You watch it to explore this strange underworld of freelance snuff salesmen. And come to think of it even that isn’t entirely necessary, because I would also watch a movie about Lou Bloom working at Subway or taking kids to Chuck E. Cheese for a birthday party or whatever. He’s just an interesting dude to watch do his thing. This fuckin guy, man.
It’s a story about scavengers. Scavenging for scraps, for bodies for lines of work in a bad economy. I read the kind of advice Lou follows and I think “that’s ridiculous, that’s for crazy people.” A normal person wouldn’t want to hire somebody like that, wouldn’t want to know somebody like that, wouldn’t want to be somebody like that, that’s for damn sure. But Lou has no such compunction, and you can’t deny that people like him often do succeed by having no moral or pride related objection to doing horrible things that sane people wouldn’t be able to live with. I think it’s a sick parody of the American success story.
It’s a funny movie, actually. But what a bummer.
I wouldn’t say he tops his performance in PRISONERS, but Gyllenhaal goes all out. He talks a little high and nasally, bugging his eyes out, pretty much never blinking, walking a little hunched over. When he’s on the job he pulls his hair up into a top knot, like it’s his samurai mode. He lives alone in a tiny apartment with one plant and a TV, but when he’s with humans he unleashes a torrent of fuckin jibber jabber. Talk talkety talk. He acts like the boss and all the sudden he’s the boss, he has an unpaid intern he can boss around and give inspirational speeches to, he has a company, he has the producer on a leash.
Act as if. Especially if you’re an ass. That’s how it works. Us non-asses would never act like that, so we end up in the passenger seat risking our lives with fucking Lou Bloom for the promise of a future maybe pay day possibly. Hey, didn’t that guy steal my chain link fence one time?
Excellent rookie directioning by Dan Gilroy, writer of FREEJACK, TWO FOR THE MONEY and THE BOURNE LEGACY. He also got a story credit on REAL STEEL but I guess they totally rewrote him. Here he’s working with world class cinemtographist Robert Elswit (THERE WILL BE BLOOD, REDBELT), who shoots hauntingly beautiful Los Angeles nightscapes that really capture the feel of the place without showing you all the usual spots we’ve seen a million times.
Check out NIGHTCATCHER, it’s good stuff.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.