Sunday, November 16, 2014

Nightcrawler / **** (R)

Louis Bloom: Jake Gyllenhaal
Nina Romina: Rene Russo
Rick: Riz Ahmed
Joe Loder: Bill Paxton

Open Road Films presents a film written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Running time: 117 min. Rated R (for violence including graphic images, and for language).

My wife and I watch the morning news just about everyday. It’s the only newscast we watch regularly. I don’t think we’re any exception to the rule. In this 24-hour news cycle that began close to 30 years ago, the local morning news is about the only outlet that can continue to compete against the CNNs, MSNBCs and FOX News teams. The new thriller by Dan Gilroy, “Nightcrawler” might have you thinking twice about the morning news as a reliable news source.

The movie follows, Louis Bloom, as self appointed video journalist, or nightcrawler, who trolls the L.A. streets every night listening to a police scanner and looking for the most shocking images he can find for the local news stations each night. We know from the beginning that Bloom is a criminal himself, a petty thief and con man who steals metal resources and sells them to whoever is willing to look the other way. He’s intelligent and knows this is a dead end line of work and even asks one of his customers for a job. But who is going to hire someone they know is a thief?

Later Louis stumbles upon a one-vehicle accident on the freeway just after it occurs. First responders are trying to save a victim from the flaming wreckage as a video crew shows up to film it. The videographer, Joe (Bill Paxton), doesn’t seem to care if he gets in the way of the workers and orders his assistant to get close to the burning vehicle regardless of his safety. Louis asks what they’re filming for and Joe says it’ll be on the morning news. Inspired, Louis steals a bike on the beach and barters it at a pawnshop for some video equipment and a police scanner.

Louis is smart. He learns quickly, despite being socially awkward. He researches a great deal online and he’s on the streets that evening filming. He steps on a fellow nightcrawler’s toes right away but learns some valuable information about selling the tapes to a news station. Jake Gyllenhaal does a good job balancing the awkward nature of Louis with an intelligent charm and a bold if understated bravado that allows him to gain access to a news station and land himself right in the lap of the news editor-in-chief with a snippet of remarkable video. His position in her lap will become more literal later on in their relationship.

With a buyer in hand, Louis quickly hires an assistant off the streets, using his knowledge of the man’s homelessness as leverage to pay him next to nothing. The way he deals with his business associates suggests some sort of social disorder. His intelligence and dedication to studying every aspect of this chosen profession provides him with copious amounts of knowledge about how his business relationships should operate, but his analytical approach to conversation about business suggests he has no awareness of any of the social implications of his actions. The key scene into Louis’ inability to relate to people on a personal level is a date into which he manipulates the news editor. His idea of what their business relationship should entail is immensely inappropriate, but his understanding of her function at the station forces her to submit to his demands.

Rene Russo is a brilliant casting choice for the station news editor, Nina. It’s a choice made easier for first time director Dan Gilroy by the fact that the two have been married since meeting on the set of his first produced screenplay “Freejack” in 1992. It’s not Russo’s connections that make this role for her, but her chops. As an older actress in Hollywood, she has a personal understanding of how quickly the clock ticks for a woman in the media. Nina’s days as a power player in the local L.A. news market are numbered and she needs Louis’s edge to carve out a lasting name for herself. She has her morals, but she must weigh them against the possibility of another station benefitting from Louis’s ability to get shots no other videographer can.

It’s Louis’s ability to manipulate the right people in the right way that allow him to climb the video news ladder so quickly. He builds the particular ladder he’s using himself. He works his associates to his needs with no concern for theirs. He works the crime scenes with no concern for the truth. All he wants is that magical shot that will make him money. Eventually this leads to some very questionable choices in the eyes of the law, but since he also acts as the eyes of the public, his ability to manipulate the facts works in his favor. He is quite clearly a sociopath.

This is an extreme look at both the power of the press and the moral ambiguity involved in turning journalism into a business. I doubt many nightcrawlers are actually sociopaths, but in a business where “If it bleeds, it leads” the analogy isn’t too much of a stretch. This film boils it down to even a finer point. If it’s white people bleeding, it leads. Bleeding in certain neighborhoods is just expected these days, but only when the news affects the very people who are consuming it can it make the people reporting it money. If that requires one to turn away from the facts of what they are seeing, well that’s just the cost of doing business. 

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