Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.

Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.

We like to tell ourselves that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. We paint the media as a pack of jackals that feed on the blood and bodies of our weak and sell it to us as a public service. We like to believe that in an age of GoPros and camera phones that we are being more invasive than we ever have. We forget though, that we used to kill people in town squares. We used to watch people get hanged, burnt, or beheaded. It’s always been part of human nature to indulge a sick curiosity about those less fortunate. The only real problem is the way that sick curiosity just can’t be cured.

NIGHTCRAWLER is the story of Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal). When we meet this socially awkward Los Angelino, he’s stealing construction materials and selling them out of the trunk of his car to another foreman. On the drive home, he happens upon a bad accident on the freeway and sees a cameraman filming the rescue as it happens. When he inquires with the cameraman named Joe (Bill Paxton), he discovers that Joe is a “Coyote” – a freelance cameraman who drives laps around Los Angeles at night looking to be first on the scene for news-worthy accidents. he then sells his footage to local news stations.

The whole idea seems to fascinate Louis, so he buys himself a police scanner and a cheap camera and quickly learns all there is to know about being a Coyote.

Early on, he hits pay dirt and gets in closer to a shooting victim being treated than most cameraman dare get. The resulting footage is disturbing, and also highly lucrative. He walks unannounced into a local news channel and inquires about selling his footage. It’s there that he meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo), who believes he has potential. She buys his footage, gives him constructive criticism, and leaves the door open for any future work he might want to bring them. This is a station that finishes low in the ratings, so Nina needs all the help she can get.

With this early taste of success, Louis gets hungry for more. He hires an assistant named Rick, starts investing in better gear, and gets sharper and sharper at being a Coyote. However, no great success comes without great cost. The cost of Luis’ success will affect Joe, Nina, and Rick differently, but in every case, that cost will be steep.

 

Gyllenhaal and Russo in NIGHTCRAWLER

 

NIGHTCRAWLER hangs on Jake Gyllenhall, and his shoulders are more than strong enough to bear the load. In Louis, he has created an incredible sociopath; the sort of man who would do truly scruple-less things but do so in the most courteous way. He seems slightly gaunt in this film, making his already-huge eyes look enormous. With them, Louis seems to see everything. He sees what we want to watch and how we want to watch it. He also sees how to get ahead in business and every weakness that can be exploited. He is able to process an obscene amount of information, and seize every opportunity. Perhaps it’s because he cares about nothing else…and therein lays what unnerves us.

Most of us are reasonably rounded people. We have a lot of things on our minds at any one moment (family, career, health, hobbies, relationships, etc). We will actually interact with several of these aspects every day, and give several more some thought or attention. The people who take us aback are the ones who only think about one thing. These people seem obsessed, maladjusted, perhaps even creepy. That’s Louis. There’s little else he does or talks about in this film besides his climb up the ladder in the news world. This isn’t about making his mark on the world, benefitting others, or realizing a lifelong dream. This is about him finding a deep measure of success personally and professionally…and if he has to proceed unethically, or ruin a few lives to get what he wants, so be it. It’s a terrifying notion, because it shows just how deep his obsession runs.

What’s slightly terrifying is the way Gyllenhaal does this without cheating. Sure, he’s a few pounds under his usual fighting weight, which gives his appearance a gawkiness we aren’t accustomed to. Most of it though is simply Gyllenhaal speaking with few inflections and a lot of eye-contact. He becomes remote and detached in a way that still allows him to be present. It’s a mechanism that allows him to film bloody bodies without so much as wondering if he should offer a helping hand. His back is straight, his eyes are scanning. He is present in every moment in every way possible…except emotionally. We pick up in that quickly, and it freaks us the fuck out.

What Louis is doing isn’t the same as photojournalism – where the reporter remains detached, but only so that they might spread the word of something truly incredible. It’s a noble pursuit that at its best can change the way we see the world. What Louis is doing is salacious. It’s intruding on human tragedy and using it to line pockets. The stories serve a public interest, sure, but not what Louis brings to them. What he brings to them is voyeuristic and salacious. He doesn’t want to chant to world, or document it. He just wants to sell tickets to a freak show, and make off with the cash box before the performers are off-stage.

Through it all – through the awkward conversations, the bloody footage, and the life-and-death situations – we watch and we feel a strange pang of guilt. Perhaps it’s because we know that as much as we want to judge Louis and Nina for checking their morals at the door, that we feed on this situation just as much as they serve it up. Throughout history we have proven that it’s not enough for us to hear about the wounds: we need to dip our fingers into the blood. NIGHTCRAWLER knows this – and it points its lens right at us and captures the side of ourselves that we most detest. Perhaps that’s what leaves us so upset. We want a warm voice to tell us that it will be okay…that these things happened to somebody else, and not us…that the sun will rise tomorrow and it will be a new day.

Instead, all we get – all we ever get – is someone like Louis, emotionally detached behind a camera and asking us “what happened?”, while a red light stares into our hearts, unblinking.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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