Satire has got to be one of the hardest things to do right – especially when it comes to films about the TV industry. They can either be ferocious and telling, as Network (1976) is, or dismal and ludicrous, which is how To Die For (1995) turned out. The world of television is such an obvious target that it’s damn near impossible to find nuance in the arena that’ll translate to celluloid. Consequently, we don’t get many successful forays in the genre nowadays. Cinema’s TV-skewering time is nearly spent.
Or is it? Dan Gilroy’s unpleasant yet engrossing movie Nightcrawler (2014) disproves that idea, suggesting the category is alive and well … and willing to reach new heights, even. The story of a misanthropic, soulless petty criminal (ominously played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who rises from selling stolen wire for a living to hawking you-are-there film footage of accidents and crime scenes to a desperate TV news station, Nightcrawler takes viewers on a mean-spirited ride through Los Angeles’ streets in search of compelling TV material. It’s a tight story that’s focused on one of the most obnoxious protagonists you’ll ever watch onscreen, Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom, an unscrupulous, talkative jerk who thinks nothing of filming dying people with his video camera in an effort to build up his career. Bloom’s growth as a footage gatherer (get it – he blooms?) runs parallel to the respect he gains from the station’s news director, Nina (Rene Russo, in a marvellously nasty performance), as well as from his main competitor, fellow slime-ball Joe (Bill Paxton). But unlike his rival, Bloom is supremely ambitious and will stop at nothing to get the content he needs and becomes addicted to. And that leads to serious repercussions.
For a satire, Nightcrawler is not that funny; in fact, it can be viewed as more of a grim character study – a look at a man who finds his calling and can’t get enough of it, to the detriment of any surrounding morality. Russo’s Nina is a perfect foil, and the scenes featuring her and Gyllenhaal are magnetic; she’s a network executive from hell, à la Faye Dunaway’s Diana in Network, who thrives on talk about ratings and numbers. We have seen this type of character before, and in this respect, perhaps Nightcrawler is somewhat derivative. Still, the development of her symbiotic relationship with Bloom is one to behold; a sequence pairing them both up at dinner in a gaudy restaurant offers a strong taste of their sexual negotiations. It’s vicious stuff, and they’re more than a match for each other. Will their dealings become exclusive? Perhaps in more ways than one.
Nightcrawler does peter out a bit at the end; some of the scenes involving Bloom’s interactions with the police are slightly hard to believe, and his meteoric success at his new trade sometimes strains credibility, given his failure up until that point. But the direction of Gilroy (who also wrote the script) never slackens, and the pace is complemented by a typically solid musical score by James Newton Howard. Cinematography, by Robert Elswit, is straightforward but crisp, showcasing L.A.’s nighttime underbelly with no affection whatsoever. This is a dangerous place, where anything can happen – where no-goodniks can hang on the coattails of an industry and think they’re even greater than the monsters that bore them. It’s Bloom’s town, and the town of people like him. He is not alone.
He just gets there first. And is instrumental in delivering content for the news … which viewers like us consume. So how much should we hate him?
The commentary in Nightcrawler is precise – perhaps we are the ones to blame for Bloom’s footage-gathering rise. After all, we drive the ratings, right? Gilroy doesn’t directly ascribe culpability to us, the viewers, but his movie does incite us to consider the possibility. What is the relationship between the digestion of newscasts and the process of getting the material, and is there any way, truly, to do it in an ethical manner?
Nightcrawler gets the audience mulling this. It’s a powerful question. And there’s no easy answer. The picture deserves kudos for bringing it up, and it’s a testament to the subtlety of Gilroy’s screenplay that we’re not hammered over the head with the morality of it all. That’s the mark of a good satire, and Nightcrawler’s success in that regard bodes well for the genre’s future. Maybe we’ll see some other such films that delve into different aspects of TV production. For now, though, I’m happy that we have a new one to relish. It’s not often that one so polished – or so cutting – comes around. And I think Louis Bloom would vouch for that.