When Lon Chaney played the Phantom of the Opera in 1925, he used thin wires to pull back his lids and make his eyes bulge like a shrunken head’s. Jake Gyllenhaal in the dark, chilly, quasi-comedy Nightcrawler achieves the same effect with no apparent prosthetic help. As the psychotic go-getter antihero, Louis Bloom, he drives around Los Angeles listening intently to a police scanner, waiting for word of an accident or violent crime that he can capture on digital video and sell to an eager local TV station, where “if it bleeds, it leads.” If Gyllenhaal blinks in the movie, I missed it. Super-size peepers fixed on his prey, he creeps towards wrecked cars and dead bodies like a ghoul on the verge of drooling and dropping to all fours; with the yellow moon rising in back of him, he looks ready to howl.
Writer-director Dan Gilroy seems to think that Louis is a fascinating specimen — a symbol of conscienceless capitalism in an economically desperate society — and that the movie also functions as a macabre media satire. But after a few minutes you know everything about Louis you’re going to know; the only surprise in Nightcrawler is the level of grotesqueness it achieves. There’s more insight (and entertainment) in an average sketch from the old SCTV series; I kept imagining Joe Flaherty’s horror host Count Floyd climbing out of his coffin and chanting, “Oooh, that Louis, he’s veh-ry skerrrr-y, kiddies — ahwoooooooo!”
Gilroy’s brother and the film’s co-producer, Tony, is best known for the paranoid conspiracy thriller Michael Clayton, which also explores what awful things decent (or at least not-totally-monstrous) people will do for a money in a culture where the rich routinely poison the lives of the poor. But Michael Clayton had a relatively conventional “conversion” structure: The protagonist (George Clooney) had to be stunned by the enormity of his corruption and risk his life to right his wrongs. Working from the same (admittedly laudable) motives, Dan Gilroy goes the other way with a vengeance. From the start we see that Louis Bloom isn’t capable of growth or change. He’s a borderline idiot. He has already been driven mad by poverty and its attendant envy, and has studied the pertinent How to Succeed sites on the internet. Selling himself to potential employers, he tonelessly parrots hard-charging business shibboleths — “I’m bold, I’m persistent, I’m self-motivating ... I know that if you wanna win the lottery, you have to work hard to buy a ticket ...” The other characters gaze on him like the nutjob he is but are more and more powerless to stop him.
Those others exist either to be lead astray or victimized. Rene Russo plays the night-shift TV producer whose mandate is “to show how urban crime creeps into the suburbs ... whites injured at the hands of minorities”; Louis blackmails her into bed (he says he likes older woman) and induces her to air appalling footage by assuring her that there’s “no better way to achieve job security.” (Kevin Rahm — Ted on Mad Men — plays the colleague of Russo’s who watches in horror, tsk-tsking, the role a fixture in politically barbed melodramas like A Face in the Crowd.) Bill Paxton is the established freelance “nightcrawler” whose competition pushes Louis to ever-greater heights of immorality. Riz Ahmed plays the homeless guy to whom Louis gives an “internship” and steers to the dark side. He’s the only wild card in the film, but he’s so undercharacterized that you can guess exactly what he’ll do and the nature of his fate.
Nightcrawler has a fair number of admirers who think it has something powerful to say about the state of the culture. I get it. Lines like Louis’s “I want to be the guy that owns the station that owns the camera” make him a useful stand-in for demonically exploitative Wall Street titans, and you can see how the movie aspires to be What Makes Sammy Run? for the digital age. But overnight broadcasts by small local stations aren’t exactly at the forefront these days — Louis could conceivably make more money by building his own website, which would allow Gilroy to introduce some tricky new variables into the equation. But those variables would require the kind of rethinking that would interfere with the film’s “purity.” Gyllenhaal’s whompingly one-note performance tells you all you need to know. He’s veh-ry skerrrr-y, kiddies — ahwoooooooo!