Nightcrawler

Straw man
★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
2014
Director: 
Dan Gilroy
Starring: 
Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
The Setup: 
Creepy guy films violence to sell to TV news.
Discussion: 

This is one of the Fall movies I was looking forward to, as it promised a satire of the news business and their relentless pursuit of violence for ratings... and I don't mind really broad, obvious satires, as long as they're fun. This turns out to be a little more, although ultimately what it is remains somewhat in question. This is the first feature by Dan Gilroy, screenwriter of Bourne Legacy and Real Steel, and brother of Tony Gilroy, of Michael Clayton. I also realize that misthinking that the movie was BY Tony Gilroy was one of my key reasons to see it. It also received a bunch of strong pre-release hype. Oh dear, do I sound somewhat unenthused about the final product?

We open with a few shots of LA by night, then meet Lou Bloom, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, cutting a fence. He is confronted by a security guard, whom he attacks, stealing his watch. In the next scene, he is trying to sell the stolen chain-link fence he was stealing, and asks for a job with the junkyard owner, launching into a long self-promotional spiel, filled with motivational speaker business cliches. So we know that: a) he's desperate and low on money, b) he's capable of violence, and c) his head is full of motivational mumbo-jumbo, most of which [we learn later] has been gleaned from the Internet. Later he stops by a car accident, and is pushed aside by a camera crew, led by Bill Paxton as Joe, who rush in to get gory footage to sell to TV news. The second sentence out of Paxton's mouth is "If it bleeds, it leads," which striles a blow against subtlety for the film [and/or clues you in to the level this is operating at]. In short order, Lou has his own camera and police scanner.

The next night he runs into Joe at an accident, but pushes in closer, and gets gorier footage, which gets bought by Nina, played by Rene Russo [the writer/director's wife], news director at a TV station. Others find the footage "excessive," but she runs with it. She tells Lou that they like footage about "crime creeping into the suburbs," preferably with white victims. Lou hires an assistant, Rick, who is currently homeless. Joe pays him $30 per night, although he himself makes much more. He's always throwing business bromides at Rick, and essentially abusing him. We have a montage of them filming crimes and selling them, Lou building up a database of his clips, and after an extended blackout, Lou now has a flashy red sports car.

So in a movie like this, unless there's going to be some interesting unexpected development, the structure is usually just a rising scale of escalating atrocities, which is kind of how it goes here. Soon he invites Nina to dinner and is essentially threatening her into having a relationship with him [Rene Russo is 60]. What does he have over her? Apparently she's been shuttling between jobs for years, and ratings sweeps week is coming up, and apparently it all hinges on his violent videos, which he threatens to take elsewhere. Around this time it hit me: none of these relationships ring true. None of these situations ring true.

Nina is kicking ass at her studio and bringing in higher ratings. Yet she's about to lose her job? She can't see from the start what everyone else sees--that Lou is an uber-creep? Her station doesn't get any complaints about the gratuitous gore they're showing, which was called "excessive" at the start and only escalated from there? Do viewers really have enough advance warning of what's coming up on a news show to really boost ratings? And Rick remains so desperate for what seems like several months--while Lou is buying himself a sports car--that he doesn't speak up about the inequality til near the end? Once you realize that all of the relationships here are just contrivances, the whole thing starts to look like one big straw man. Easy to blow down--because he doesn't exist, he was fashioned specifically for the film.

It seems that the primary goal of the film was to create this creepy figure--achieved--and everything else was secondary, like what the film has to "say." On one hand the whole thing is a big criticism that TV news aims for the most violent footage, which is hardly much of a revelation [and I don't believe is true, at least as represented here]. The second thematic thread is the post-recession economy, which drives everyone in to make bad decisions for money. But that is undermined by the fact that Lou is a creep, recession or not, and the situations of Nina and Rick don't seem realistic. And even so, even THAT is a shallow analysis: lack of money will cause people to do horrible things. Thanks for the intelligence.

That said, there are a lot of things that could be explored. The nature of Lou and Nina's friendship, for one. The movie could float on the idea that they are both messed-up people in a way that they end up feeding on each other, but it doesn't really go there. We later learn that she is dating him, but we have skipped the actual interaction and how it worked out. We know almost nothing about Nina throughout, and what we do learn, we are told after the fact by Lou. There's a thread of how Lou learns everything from the Internet, but it isn't developed into a sociological commentary and nothing interesting is made of it. We know absolutely nothing about Rick's life outside of his time with Lou, and Bill Paxton's character is there for one purpose only, and once he fulfills it, he's out of there. The movie spends every second of it's bloated two-hour time with Lou, but we could have benefitted from knowing more about the supporting characters, and the environment all of this is supposed to be happening in. But it seems that the director was delighted by what a creeepy ghoul he got in Gyllenhaal, and couldn't take the camera off him.

It's unfortunate, because I wanted to like it more, and would have been happy to overlook the banality of its points if it was just more fun, biting and entertaining. As it is, it just creates a false situation filled with false characters and then expects us to be appalled by it all.

Should you watch it: 

It won't kill you, but you could do a lot better.