Way back in the 70s and 80s, films dissecting the culture of materialism, narcissism and greed were commonplace. Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy and Wall Street all featured disturbed and psychotic antiheroes chasing their own subversion of the American Dream as a narrative fulcrum.
After barely a peep throughout the 90s and early 2000s – the Christian Bale-starring American Psycho aside – the genre is now making something of a comeback with The Wolf of Wall Street and The Riot Club both taking a grisly and surreal swipe at flawed men – and it is always men – who crave power whatever the cost.
Nightcrawler continues along in a similar vain, with first-time director Dan Gilroy crafting a slick urban thriller for generation y.
We find our focus drawn to Louis “Lou” Bloom, a lithe and ferociously unsettling petty thief trawling the neon-lit streets of Hollywood in search of an opportunity to get ahead. Undeterred by the constant rejection from would-be employers, Bloom posses an unflappable determination that would make an Apprentice contestant cringe, and his persistence is soon rewarded when he witnesses the bloody aftermath of a car crash being filmed by Bill Paxton’s video journalist. Seeing the chance to get the career of his dreams, Bloom acquires a camcorder and a radio scanner, haphazardly filming violent incidents in the hopes of selling the tapes to the highest bidder.
And so begins Lou Bloom’s descent into moral decadence as every taste of success further whets his voracious appetite to take more risks and the film only becomes more gripping as Bloom draws closer to crossing that line between voyeur and participant.
While this can certainly be read as a sharp comment on the corrupting influence of ambition – Bloom gradually forces his poor, inexperienced “intern” into increasingly dangerous acts, for example – Nightcrawler is also a barbed swipe at the exploitative nature of rolling news channels.
Bloom’s primary employer is Nina (Russo), a rapacious news director who’s more concerned with winning a ratings war than reporting the facts. In a world dominated by consumerism the viewer is king, and Gilroy’s script picks up on this idea with Nina pressuring Bloom into going to extreme lengths to secure the grisly footage she knows will score big come sweeps week. As Nina says: “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” Charming, isn’t she?
The entire story hinges on the performance of Gyllenhaal, who is frighteningly absorbing as Bloom. The End of Watch-actor lost more than 30 pounds to play the role with transformative results as Gyllenhaal inhabits the character, his sunken appearance making it look as though Bloom’s soul has been sucked out with a straw, brutally exposing those bulging eyes and merciless stare.
The support cast unfortunately fade into the background behind such a powerful performance – Kevin Rahm particularly suffering as a morally outraged news editor – but they’re not without purpose.
It’s interesting to observe how all those who come into contact with Bloom are infected by his personality. Russo’s Nina might see herself as a strong, domineering presence in the newsroom but her relationship with Bloom takes her far from a position of control and she soon comes to regret offering him a way in.
Riz Ahmed, too, may be frustratingly pacified as Rick for most of the film but his character is a vital counterpoint to Bloom’s moral decay and his provides almost all of the emotional weight during the closing stages.
Though Nightcrawler is an assured, pulsating debut for director Dan Gilroy, pounding down the same noir-bathed LA streets as Drive, it’s James Newton Howard’s off-kilter soundtrack that really stands out, reverberating with a triumphant echo that perfectly captures Bloom’s depraved sense of achievement.
Dark, thrilling and oozing in confidence from Gilroy, Nightcrawler is a smart pitch-black satire that is raised to the level of genius by the strength of Gyllenhaal’s performance and must surely now be considered the dark horse for this year’s Oscars race.
Run time: 117 mins; Genre: Thriller; Released: 31 October 2014;
Director: Dan Gilroy; Screenwriter: Dan Gilroy;
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed
Click here the watch the trailer for Nightcrawler