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Strong Performances Aside, Nightcrawler Recycles Old News

  • Christian Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • 2014 30 Oct
Strong Performances Aside, <i>Nightcrawler</i> Recycles Old News

DVD Release Date: February 10, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: October 31, 2014
Rating: R (for violence including graphic images, and for language)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 117 min.
Director: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed, Kevin Rahm

As the old journalistic saying goes, "If it bleeds, it leads." Nightcrawler, the directorial debut from screenwriter Dan Gilroy, takes that adage and shows just how far we've come as a culture in embracing it. The trouble is that TV-viewer engagement has shifted dramatically, and stories centered on sensationalist local-news footage feel a bit dated.

Nevertheless, Nightcrawler is compelling viewing, thanks to some very strong performances and the sleek, dark visuals of cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will be Blood). It's also a pitch-black comedy about corporate culture and what it takes to get ahead in a cut-throat business

Louis (Jake Gyllenhaal, Enemy) is a petty thief trying to find his way to steady work. He blames his lack of work experience on the "self-esteem culture" and asserts that good things come to those who work hard, but his idea of hard work is to sell wire and other scrap for a few bucks.

One prospective boss sees right through Louis's creepily sincere employment pitch. "I'm not hiring a thief," the man bluntly tells him.

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Neither is anyone else, so Louis becomes a different kind of entrepreneur. Coming upon a roadside accident, he meets Joe (Bill Paxton, Edge of Tomorrow), a videographer who uses a police scanner to descend on the scene of car accidents, fires and other incidents, then sells his footage to local news operations. His warnings about the job's unforgiving nature don't deter Louis, who, having glimpsed his future, obtains a camera and scanner and starts competing with Joe for the goriest, grisliest video he can capture.

Louis's footage needs an outlet, and he finds an advocate in news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo, the wife of writer/director Gilroy), a veteran who's two months into her latest gig and is eager for the shocking footage that will bring viewers to her broadcast rather than to her competitors'.

"Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut," she advises Louis, who attempts to meet Nina's demands by providing grisly footage of dead bodies from a suspected home invasion. The white victims in a wealthy area make the story all the more appealing to Nina, who's looking to fan the fears of locals worried about an uptick of "urban" crime in their elite neighborhood.

Soon Louis, with the help of an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist), is beating even the police to the scene of the crime. The footage he captures jeopardizes their investigations, but buys Louis leverage in his negotiations with Nina. He wants more money for his footage, a chance to hawk his services to other people in the newsroom and more personal involvement with Nina outside of the workplace.

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Although Nightcrawler isn't primarily a comedy, a strain of dark humor runs through its story. Nina negotiates with Louis and insists to her newsroom boss (Kevin Rahm) that any and all graphic images be run—and repeatedly plugged by the anchors with warnings about "graphic content"—while Louis's embrace of corporate-speak never quite convinces Rick, or viewers, that his boss is anything other than disturbed. We wait for Louis to go too far, which he does relatively early and often, one-upping the excess with each subsequent episode.

In a world where local news audiences have declined dramatically in recent years, and where TMZ and celebrity gossip dominate much of the cultural dialogue, the ethics behind what type of content makes it onto such broadcasts tells us little we don't already know. However, Gyllenhaal and Russo are so memorably co-dependent that the film is easy to watch even after we sense that there's not going to be much more to the story than the themes it establishes early on.

Helping the familiar blend go down smoothly are the shimmering nighttime images of Los Angeles and the cool hues Elswit captures of newsroom video monitors. The film's look is as strong an asset as its lead performers. Had the script worked at the same high level as the visual presentation, Nightcrawler would have been something special. As it is, the film is a strong acting showcase that hammers home one or two ideas over and over. With so much working in Nightcrawler's favor, one can't help but wish its story had been developed a bit further, possibly turning an interesting film into a great one.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

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  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple uses of the “f” word; several uses of foul language
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: None
  • Sex/Nudity: Louis propositions Nina; Louis asserts that Rick “tricks,” and says “lots of straight guys trick”
  • Violence/Crime: Carnage and crimes scenes are videotaped for sale to a local-news broadcast; Louis wrests a wristwatch from a security guard; a newscast is described as “a woman running down the street with her throat cut”; reckless driving; Louis smashes a bathroom mirror; a man is shot several times
  • Religion/Morals/MarriageA broadcaster is asked whether showing certain footage is legal, and she replies, sarcastically, that’s doing so is moral

Publication date: October 31, 2014