Jake Gyllenhaal has really big eyes. He lost a massive amount of weight to play Lou Bloom, the drifter antihero of director Dan Gilroy’s excellent thriller Nightcrawler.
And above sunken cheeks, those eyes of his look positively enormous.
Lou explains he’s “a quick learner” – and thanks to Gyllenhaal’s uncanny, mesmerising performance, you can just about see Lou’s brain whirring. I noticed what he notices. And Lou’s only moment of genuine emotion in the film comes when he breaks a mirror in rage, gazing at his own face.
When Lou stumbles across freelance crime-scene videojournalist Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) videotaping a fiery car crash, he senses a career opportunity. It takes cynicism to be a ‘nightcrawler’ – and Joe gives the hoary cliché, “If it bleeds, it leads”, the kind of sleaziness only Paxton can supply – but Lou is willing to push the moral boundaries further than anyone else.
Lou takes the American Dream of social mobility to its abhorrent, but logical conclusion: to be the best, abide by no rules. With no formal education, but a lifetime’s immersion in self-help culture, he expresses himself in clichés acquired online. (“A friend is a gift you give yourself!” “Why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue!”)
But he has the cunning of an opportunistic nocturnal animal, with Los Angeles his urban jungle.
He films intrusively close to an assault victim… and sells the gory footage to TV network news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo).
“You have a good eye,” Nina tells Lou, who replies, “You’ll be seeing me again.”
Nina knows visuals matter. A former news anchor, she’s dangling at the end of her contract, with nowhere else to go from a graveyard gig at a low-rating network. When she characterises her newscast as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”, Nina betrays her own mounting desperation.
Nightcrawler explores the way ‘jobs for life’ have given way to a precarious freelance economy where only the strongest survive. Americans – and Australians too – believe hard work is always rewarded, and we’re invited to see Lou as a twisted hero.
The film is exciting to watch – a blend of cool neo-noir and boisterous satire – and full of visual excess, from Lou’s glossy muscle car to Nina’s crusted-on eye shadow. At times Lou’s contempt for ethics feels enjoyably bold, almost gonzo.
But as the footage Lou sells Nina becomes increasingly visceral and unethically obtained, we’re forced to consider that perhaps only a monster thrives in this entrepreneurial culture.
By contrast, Rick (Riz Ahmed), the ‘intern’ Lou hires from a classified ad, represents those struggling Americans who fail because they’re too human. Rick is touchingly ready to believe Lou’s chirpy motivational patter… but he lacks his boss’s gimlet-eyed ruthlessness. The scene in which Rick tries to negotiate a pay rise is both hilarious and heartbreaking.
Nightcrawler challenges us to consider that looking is a moral choice. What do we learn by watching? When is it kinder to turn our gaze away? And when does observation spill over into participation?
Ultimately, Lou’s amoral ‘monkey see, monkey do’ approach to newsgathering isn’t so far from the central premise of buddy comedy Let’s Be Cops (currently in cinemas). In both films, success and authority can be learned online, bought cheaply, and accepted unquestioningly.
Nightcrawler is released in selected cinemas nationally on November 27, 2014.