By Donna Bourgois. Everyone loves the classic American Dream story. The American Dream isn’t so far back that we can’t dig through years of #thestruggle to find our roots. I’m sure we aren’t so completely jaded as a society, that we can’t remember stories of our grandparents fresh off the boat to find life in America. Maybe now is just the time we need an intense nouveau revitalization of that Dream. Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllennaal do just that in Nightcrawler, and give this classic tale the much overdo facelift it deserves.
Jake Gyllennaal is Louis, our Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness protagonist who also happens to be a lying, stealing, opportunistic sociopath. There is no hand holding or explanation of Lou’s backstory, you are simply dropped into his psychosis the moment the movie starts. Gilroy, writer and director, does a service to viewers in allowing you to fill in the blanks. You, like the wolves, are left to fend for yourself as you uncover how far Lou is willing to run down the rabbit hole into the echelon of trash videographers our news so heavily relies upon.
The story begins with Lou as he drives home in a state of zen-like serenity that envelopes everyone after accepting that oh-so familiar feeling of work-related rejection. Jobless and unafraid, Lou pulls over on the highway to take gawking to the next level and watches as a rescue team pulls a woman from a fiery wreck. Totally engrossed in the moment and almost criminally close to the scene, you see Lou as the curious creature, as he plots his next entrepreneurial endeavor. While hovering around the first responders, gazing at the visceral beauty that is the moment before death, Lou is pushed away by a freelance video crew. Lou, the inquisitive psychopath, comes to the conclusion that perhaps he has found his true calling in the shadow of other’s suffering. After the empathy-deprived duo captures their money shot, the wolf pounces for the kill and asks if they need any additional hands. He’s rejected again but – glowing from hope and violence – he heads home to catch the news.
Through a few cons and pawns Lou gets his claws on a camera and an assistant, Riz Ahmed, and our true hero is born. Lou studies the freelance videographer that rejected him and picks up all of the tricks to get the perfect shot to get the most money. Following him through the trenches of the night and his subsequent partnership with Nina, a desperate news director (Rene Russo), Nightcrawler‘s true story comes clear. Lou shows a great ability to learn quickly and blend into the scenery in order to access areas others wouldn’t dare. Nina, spotting these qualities, strikes an exclusive deal with Lou in hopes of boosting her lackluster ratings.
Both The American Dream and Lou’s own ambition make him do crazy things. Withholding information from police is just a part of the job, as long as it allows Lou to remain employed, and moving a body or sneaking into a house would never be out of the question for Lou, so long as it captured the perfect scene for his blood-thirsty audience. The unethical news media would seem to condone the immoral behavior of Lou, as it’s welcomed and encouraged by Nina. The film culminates in the unfolding of events after Lou beats the police to the scene of a crime. Lou is armed with a story not even the police fully know and what he does with that information is shocking.
Fully embracing the dark side of Lou, the sinister underbelly of the news industry, and an honest view of LA is were the movie best succeeds. Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) aren’t trying to force a cookie cutter view of California down your throat. LA is filmed honestly as it is, outside of the glitz and glamour you may be used to. There are stunning shots of gorgeous California landscapes sprinkled with grit. Together Gilroy and Elswit capture the intangible discomfort and tension of Lou and his relationships with the city, police, and Nina.
The film is uncomfortably funny and perfectly satirical of an industry as bullshit as the city where it takes place. There is an unabashed portrayal of the news and just how fucked the media is: “If it bleeds, it leads.” As over the top as some of the scenes and situations can seem, they really aren’t any different from what we see in the news every day. Gilroy does a spectacular job at pointing out just how callous Nina, Lou, and the rest of the industry can be towards people and their personal pain. If it gets you ratings that is the only thing that matters.
While the characters lack some depth, they are so bizarre that it almost eliminates any realization of growth or any real arc. Jake Gyllennaal gives a wonderfully disturbing performance throughout the film. While it’s near impossible to imagine Gyllennaal giving such a believable and captivating performance at any other point of his career, it is equally difficult to imagine anyone else playing the character. His commitment to the role is very obvious and it’s clear that the right choice was made.
As a directorial debut the movie is excellent, and I am very excited to see what Gilroy has planned for future endeavors. While there are some hiccups the film is really enjoyable and has a little something for everyone. The performances are great and the cinematography shows a side of LA that rarely sees screen time. The sardonic tone of the story and the intriguing obsessive tendencies of the lunatic hopeful truly make the film. Through failure and success we follow Lou through a twisting path of self discovery as we uncover just how far he is willing to go in the pursuit of his – and the American – dream.