What if it’s not that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?
Nightcrawler is… unsettling. But not in the same way as, say, Filth. It’s the kind of movie that makes you cringe into your seat in the theater, because there are awkward things, and things that go on that just are profoundly wrong, and you can see them all coming.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a rather creepy man who is self-educated, loquacious, and desperate for work. As the movie opens, he’s stealing scrap metal to sell, and tries to ask for a job with an absolutely stunning display of memorized internet business-speak. The owner of the scrapyard turns him down cold, saying he won’t give a job to a thief. Lou happens across a freelance news crew (“nightcrawlers”) immediately after and concludes that it’ll be the job for him–which he sets out to do with not so much dedication as eerie intensity. He has no morals, no compunctions, and absolutely no boundaries, which sets him up to be king of if it bleeds it leads. He sells his disturbing and morally questionable footage to Nina, played by Renee Russo, and it escalates from there.
There’s not much question that something is seriously wrong with the amoral Lou, and Gyllenhaal disappears creepily into the role in the best way possible. But the ability of Lou to pull people into his vortex is still unnerving, as if he’s somehow finding and strengthening what is worst in them, all while being exceedingly pleasant. It’s an amazing acting job, really, and the way Nina and Lou feed off each other is particularly distasteful, which is to say the movie accomplished what it set out to do extremely well.
Nightcrawler works best as a character sketch of a manipulative man that’s probably a sociopath, and as an indictment of the manufacture of news stories. When Nina tells Lou what kinds of stories she wants–her viewers want–she emphasizes very plainly that it’s about “urban” crime creeping into the “suburbs” and ideally victims should be wealthy and white, while perpetrators should be poor and minorities. Graphic is better, and she does her best to hype up the fear of every news story she puts together. In her own way, she’s just as gross and amoral a character as Lou, motivated entirely by the self-interest of keeping her own job.
And there are still more disturbing things waiting beyond that, such as the relationship between Nina and Lou, and what happens to Lou’s hapless assistant Rick, a man who is simply desperate for a job and incredibly vulnerable because of it.
Nightcrawler is a movie where everyone is a shitty, horrible person, and they do shitty, horrible, creepy things. It’s interesting, and well-shot, and excellently acted, but you still have to be willing to roll with the fact that the character are all fucking terrible human beings. And this without even the protection of Filth‘s disturbing layer of humor and manic surrealism. It’s dark, and unavoidable. Character sketch with excellent acting, yes. But it’s definitely not for everyone.