Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler wants to be noir in the same way that Lou Bloom wants to be a cinematic auteur, clinging with tight desperation to an idea that can never fully come to fruition. Instead it lurks in shadows and creates a quiet, pensive beauty grown from a horror that should deeply disturb us but instead only brings immense satisfaction. This is the paradox that Lou Bloom, thief-turned-handyman-turned-freelance videographer, finds himself caught in, to his slight annoyance and our sheer disgust.
Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is one of society’s most dangerous creatures. He’s a young man with no obligations and no real sense of direction. He lives in a dingy apartment among a grungy smattering of apartments in an anonymous area of Los Angeles. He scrapes together a living by doing a series of odd jobs that appear to involve stealing or otherwise dishonest labor. But he happily informs us that he is eager to start on the path toward a real career.
He finds that career when events of chance bring him to the front row of a highway collision. He stands idly by, at first watching a pair of police officers struggle to free a woman from a burning car. He then watches as a pair of freelance videographers record the event, excitedly capturing shots of turmoil and flaming wreckage that will sell big before the 6:00am news. The idea sounds easy enough, and Lou joins the party.
Armed with a camera and sense of adventure, Lou elects to become a “Nightcrawler” — a freelance videographer who records footage of calamities to sell to local news outlets. Car crashes, stabbings, fires, you name, it. The bloodier, the better. He quickly grows adept at his job, but with a bit more zest and zeal than we feel comfortable with. We quickly recognize that there is a certain voyeurism to photographing dead bodies that is uncomfortably akin to eying pornography. Lou’s invasive camera thrusts us into forbidden spaces that we are not meant to inhabit, and he’s not the only one. As he competes for air time with other freelancers, we realize that we’ve descended into a dark world that thrives on an economy of flesh and bloodshed, and what’s worse, Nightcrawler doesn’t shy away from reminding us that we’re contributing to it.
As viewers, we’ve grown accustomed to the traditional function of our roles. We observe events from the safety and distance of our seats while the horrible things take place on screen, completely removed from us. Not so for Lou. Nightcrawler forces us to abandon this traditional boundary as Lou’s footage gathering tactics become more and more uncouth.
Nightcrawler isn’t just a study in the invasion of privacy, but a demonstration in the absolute obliteration of the concept of it. As passive observers, we’re forced to go along with Lou as his actions wade into areas of murky moral ambiguity. We get the sense that had the circumstances of fortune not unwound in the way that they did, Lou Bloom could have slithered his way into any number of creepy careers, each more disturbing than the next. Were nightcrawling not such a lucrative industry, Lou’s camera lens may have found its way into bedrooms or locker rooms or other disgustingly invasive places. But fortunately for now, it appears that Lou will stick with dead, dying, destroyed or otherwise mutilated bodies, all the while perfecting his framing with the delicate touch of a film student squaring a shot.
And the studio head eats it up, reflecting not without irony the beauty of Lou’s work, insisting on an under-appreciated quality to his footage that sets him apart from the rest of the freelance videographers. The difference, we recognize, is a healthy respect for boundaries, and an awareness for any concept of human decency. But to Lou, it’s just business.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays the role with flawless jest, artfully navigating the razor thin wire between curious creep, and unhinged sociopath. Gilroy gives no pretense that Lou is a good guy. We know he isn’t. He is a vile person, able to make skin crawl yet somehow likable and entertaining enough to make us willing to tag along with him.
In a unique twist on the solitary hero of the classic noir genre, we’re given a morally questionable anti-hero whose only source of identification with us are a series of long rambling car rides over darkened Los Angeles streets in the dead of night. LA natives recognize that we live in a uniquely noir town, where the darkness of the spaces we inhabit when the sun goes down often ushers us gently to eerie beats of both beauty and horror.
However, Lou Bloom sees only beauty in the horror, and forces us to see it as well, not just as viewers, but also participants. And perhaps there’s something to it. After all, the media feeds on a reliable audience to consume tales of bloodshed and woe, making it impossible for us to remove ourselves from contributing to the cycle. We aren’t just part of the problem, we are the problem. Lou knows this, and isn’t ashamed to make it work for him.