The star of the film is Jake Gyllenhaal. But we don’t get our familiar image of him. Tense, lean, with enormous eyes, it is unsettling to see him here. He plays Lou Bloom, a man of about thirty who has been driven – by what? – to achieve success at any cost. And he has no idea how. Then, after he sees a man with a TV camera at a grisly traffic accident, a man who actually sells the pictures by phone while he’s walking back to his car, Lou decides this work is for him.
We learn that Lou has gifts that give him an advantage: he is a psychopath and a narcissist, not held back by human empathy. He will exploit the public’s appetite for the lurid, the shocking, the most violent images that capture the highest ratings on TV news. He will team with – and manipulate – two people to get to his goal: Nina, a station manager played by Rene Russo, who uses Jake’s increasingly violent photos to advance her career, and Rick, a homeless Hispanic street kid played by Riz Ahmed, who sees Lou as his only chance to escape the gutter.
As written and directed by Dan Gilroy, this is a well-made, suspenseful film with a gripping climax. I would have to recommend it just for the quality of the acting and its absorbing story. But it leaves a sour taste. Bloom is one of the most repulsive lead characters I’ve ever seen. He is brilliant and relentless, and seems to have pre-thought the slam-shut response to any objection to his behavior. Gyllenhaal is demonically good, and the extent of Bloom’s success as a purveyor of human suffering is disturbing, yet believable.
But, in a very real sense, it is also offensive. Unlike Network, which portrayed an audience driven by real anger at its powerlessness, the TV audience here is just a bunch of sadists. Their appetite is for the most bloody, lurid and horrible images of pain and death, with or without context. While Bloom and Nina both exploit the public’s appetite, they seem totally disconnected from it. Theirs is a behaviorist skill, like the training of white mice. Gilroy implicitly condemns the TV news audience for feasting on the gore, but he shows their exploiters as bemused puppet-masters, coldly distanced from the rest of us.
In the first place, I don’t buy it. Success and power for its own sake doesn’t explain Bloom’s exceptional, intuitive skill at marketing this particular product. It requires a lifelong erotic fascination with it, something the filmmakers do not dare to show. David Cronenberg’s films, most notably Crash, leave no doubt about his relation to his subject. The music, photography, and especially his actors’ rapturous enjoyment of pain, whether of others or themselves, sends home the message that the director partakes of those same passions himself, if not to that degree.
Nightcrawler cops out on this point. As creepy as Bloom is, his lust for success is oddly asexual. In fact, when he tries to maneuver Nina into becoming his mistress, the scene, well-written until that point, stops the movie cold.
The public’s taste for the depraved is an appalling mystery, but is embedded deep in human experience. Gilroy shows it to us, often entertainingly, but backs away from analysis or insight. In doing this, he seems to share Bloom’s own perspective. From his superior position, he knows how to exploit the audience for this film, who will pay for a ticket to see it.