Review: “Nightcrawler” is a Disturbingly Hilarious Look at Voyeuristic Journalism

There is a moment in the third act of Nightcrawler that may be the most profound commentary on contemporary news culture from this decade. It’s on par with the infamous Network scene in which Peter Finch shouts “I’m mad as hell!” Content manager Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is in a control booth telling on air reporters how to handle some gruesome footage. There’s a need to emphasize the terror and scare the viewers. The man behind the footage, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) watches over Nina’s shoulder as the incidents play out. It isn’t a reaction of concern, but of pride. He shot the footage that will make him a lot of money. He is a new type of psychopath. He isn’t a person who kills, but feeds off of disaster for a paycheck. In this moment, Nightcrawler has become the defining statement of shock journalism.

Bloom is a nightcrawler in the Los Angeles county. Living by the motto “If it bleeds, it leads,” he drives around the city during after hours to find the latest tragedy. He isn’t there to help. All he wants is to stick a camera in your face to get the best shot. Working for news station WXLA, he strives to be the top story. This means getting something so gruesome and shocking that its report has to be prefaced by “Viewer discretion is advised.” He is a voyeuristic type of journalist that is only made creepier by his obsessions. The cockier he gets, the faster he is to beat the cops to crime scenes and the more likely he is to stage the set for a better shot.

If there is one issue with the film, it is that it doesn’t quite serve as the great American journalism tale of the 10’s. It wants to, but the story is all about Gyllenhaal’s performance. With confident eyes and a salesman delivery of every line, there’s a sense that Bloom isn’t right in the head. He is conning his way through illegal jobs without a single ounce of empathy for anything. He wants to make money plain and simple. He embodies a new form of journalism that has popped up in the post-Cops era in which trashy culture sells over real events. Bloom should know. He has researched everything thoroughly. What makes this go from just another psychopathic character to a deeper, complex performance is that director Dan Gilroy doesn’t choose a side. He allows Bloom to preach his rules to whoever will listen. Much like the heightening of reality that Bloom contributes to, he sounds crazy.

The film is best viewed as a dark comedy a’la American Psycho (minus the homicidal/sexual elements). While Gyllenhaal only gives the character two emotions, he plays them wonderfully for comic effect. He is a disgrace to journalism, but he isn’t doing it for dignity. He plays the field like Daniel Plainview. He sees people as consumers. Likewise, his calm delivery almost seems meant to humor them. He doesn’t understand human emotions and that makes his job easier to do. With witty dialogue, he manages to turn disaster into some of the film’s most darkly comedic moments, which helps to elevate the insanity into something greater. This is an amazing performance in a hilarious film with elements of The French Connection in the third act.

However, it doesn’t work as the great American journalism tale because of this. Yes, its exploits into how he drives through the night while scrutinizing which freeway to take are key to understanding the insanity, but what does it all add up to? This is best viewed as a character study of a man who starts off selling fence mesh that he tore off of a gate. He doesn’t care what he’s selling, just that you’ll buy it. He is a decent negotiator, which makes him even more dangerous. In a way, the journalism he makes is no different than the stolen bike that comes early in the film.

It is a wonderful parallel that reflects a void in humanity and makes him all the more despicable. While there are scenes at KWLA that capture something marvelously exploitative about a reporter’s morality, most of the emphasis is on Bloom’s obsession with the next shot. It’s about flying too close to the proverbial sun until he gets burned. The sensational success of Nightcrawler comes from watching a man enter and then create danger just to get paid. He didn’t need to be there. He’s kind of an idiot. But hey, at least he got paid.

It also helps that James Newton Howard gives a great, ominous score that pumps the tensity and makes the drab Los Angeles streets into something dreamlike. With a huge focus on media and radio towers, the film knows what it is commenting on visually. It doesn’t romanticize anything, instead making everyone seem unflattering when they see Bloom approach with his cheap camera.

Still, the music contradicts this perfectly, allowing the scenes to play out as if he is a director filming a movie that plays around him. It could be seen as a commentary on journalism, but also reality TV and gossip shows as well. What is the level of decency that people are given anymore? To Bloom, there isn’t any. He is enigmatic, but you can’t be. Even if it’s a dream, it’s kind of like a nightmare.

Nightcrawler is a wonderful invention and an excellent debut with plenty of powerful moments. Its commentary may be a little weak, but it does present a necessary think piece on morality. There have been few journalism films that have been this engaging and strange. For that, be thankful that it exists, especially with Gyllenhaal’s amazing performance that solidifies him as the best actor of 2014. This is his show and you’re all just going to be stuck on camera. If nothing else, there’s hope that this film’s messages will be explored in better context in the future. However, in a time where there aren’t that many great dark comedies, this may be one for the books. It’s exploitative, sick, bizarre, informational and hilarious all in the span of two hours. It is modern Los Angeles in a nutshell without a repentant eye and where journalism is not about informing, but manipulating fear into the viewer. The world has become a stage show of insanity.