‘Nightcrawler’ is unsettling look at broadcast news, driven personalities

Drama - 2015Nightcrawler, the revealing and semi-brilliant drama from writer-director Dan Gilroy, is a harsh look at local broadcast news where the phrase “If it bleeds, it leads” seems to be a slogan to live by. Jake Gyllenhaal offers another powerful performance, and Rene Russo may turn in the finest character piece of her accomplished career. Although the film trips up in the final stages, or lack thereof, Nightcrawler is in-your-face commentary and extremely well made.

Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a small-time thief who seems to live by the generic business lessons he reads on the Internet. He quotes common business phrases to the people he encounters in life, sometimes coming off like he’s rehearsed the lines over and over again (probably because he has). He’s also an opportunist, a man who weaves in and out of society, looking for openings to use his “skills.”

When he’s able to view a highway accident and the subsequent news coverage up close one night, he decides to pivot his career toward broadcast news. Watching the efforts of veteran cameraman Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), he decides to purchase a camera and police scanner, and start listening to the calls of the night.

Louis quickly gets a name for himself, especially in the offices of news director Nina Ramone (Russo), by breaking the rules and venturing on the other side of the caution tape. His footage is almost too real to be believed, and his access seems to be all-encompassing. Ethics don’t play well with Louis; he simply wants to advance up the ladder.

Nina is seemingly more professional, but she does and says too much to receive the high ratings and push off a possible firing. Time and time again she recounts her philosophies, which are harsh and wrong. She believes society wants violence at 11 p.m., and they want to follow stories where the violence intrudes on suburbia. Louis, like a good disciple, hears these words and finds her the footage … no matter what he has to do.

The acting from Russo and Gyllenhaal is award-worthy. Gyllenhall is so unsettling as Louis that it’s hard to find any sympathy for his broken character. He has no friends and probably no close family members. He is driven and dedicated to his job, and he talks like a corporate executive, even though his only employee is Rick (Riz Ahmed). He comes off as truly believing the slogans that he constantly utters.

Russo is a fast talker who can achieve results, no matter the ethical quandaries. There’s one scene where she instructs her anchors from the control room on how to present Louis’s footage, and she says the dialogue with steely determination and almost evil perfection.

Gilroy’s neo-noir looks great. The streets of Los Angeles, sometimes filled with blood and the whirling of police lights, is a sinful environment where crime and accidents are routine and to be exploited by the likes of Louis and Nina. The look of the film is as much a part of the unsettling nature of this narrative as any performance.

At a quick 115 minutes, the film feels like it’s missing a third act. Watching Louis’s rise through the ranks is suddenly cut off, and yet another 30 minutes in his company seems warranted. Even so, this narrative turns an uncomfortable mirror on local broadcast news and the dedication of hurtful personalities. The details seem heightened and perhaps exaggerated, but the commentary on society, news and violence is heard loud and clear.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • Nightcrawler
  • 2014
  • Written and directed by Dan Gilroy
  • Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton and Riz Ahmed
  • Running time: 115 minutes
  • Rated R for violence including graphic images, and for language
  • Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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