As a third year journalism student, one step closer to graduation and a step even further towards long-term unemployment, nothing gives me greater pleasure than watching films about how journalists are bastards. In fiction, journalists are commonly portrayed as sociopaths with not a solitary shred of moral decency when it comes to finding a story. In my experience, journalists are over-worked, over-stressed people who spend most of their day re-writing press releases to make them sound like original news stories. Admittedly, my only insight is from the small handful of local newspapers I’ve written for here in sunny Northern England, not a giant TV station in Los Angeles, which believably could use the “if it bleeds, it leads” argument as a broadcast manifesto.
In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a weirdo who is trying to make ends meet by stealing from construction sites and selling items he’s picked up illegally. After being turned down for work for being a thief, he encounters a major car accident on the drive home. Feeling inspiration, he sells a bike to get enough money for a camcorder and a radio scanner so he can start finding and filming true crime stories of his own. He soon finds himself gathering stories for a local news programme, whose showrunner (Rene Russo) takes a special interest in the footage he’s been finding. As long as the victims of crime are “white and well-off” she will put it on the air – forming the foundation of his private news company VNN, a rivalry with other freelance reporters (an under-utilised but still brilliant Bill Paxton) and an unhealthy relationship with his new intern Rick (Riz Ahmed).
The fact that critics have hauled praise on Nightcrawler, deeming it nothing less than a “modern classic” is laughable. This isn’t because it’s a bad film (for the majority of the running time it is a hoot and a half), but because it is so unambiguously unoriginal. The Oxford dictionary definition of masterpiece is a “work of outstanding skill, artistry or workmanship”. Nightcrawler is only a masterpiece in that it so closely follows the template of a rightly acclaimed masterpiece: Sidney Lumet’s 1976 black comedy Network. The only skill or workmanship first-time director Dan Gilroy shows is the ability to restage entire scenes from that film in a contemporary setting. Rene Russo’s entire character arc is stolen verbatim from Faye Dunaway’s character in Network, as she happily loses anything approaching integrity to ensure her news broadcast becomes LA’s highest rated.
Network was a savage satire on what a low-rated TV news station would do to get ratings, turning to fear-mongering as opposed to actual reporting. In the age of Fox News, that movie only grows more relevant, yet an updated take on its satirical subject is still a worthwhile proposition. After all, we are living in an age when TV networks are trying desperately to get young people interested in news and pander to them almost embarrassingly over social media. Sadly, Nightcrawler doesn’t see potential in these ideas and doesn’t even bother updating the subject – the only reason we know this is set in the modern day is a brief reference to a “tweet of the day” for the newscast.
The reason that the movie remains entertaining in spite of its familiarity is because of how solid the performances are. Jake Gyllenhaal gives the creepiest performance of his entire career (and that is saying something), playing loner Lou Bloom with the same combination of misguided focus and manic intensity that Christian Bale played Patrick Bateman with. Whereas Bateman would irrelevantly entertain guests with stories of how great the new Huey Lewis and the News record is, Bloom instead interrupts conversations by getting enthusiastic about everything from Mexican food to bizarre factoids he’s just researched on the internet. Of course, Patrick Bateman was a clearly defined psychopath, making his actions more obviously hilarious; it’s the ambiguity of the inner workings of Lou Bloom’s mind that make him as terrifying as he is appallingly funny.
Yet equal praise should go to Riz Ahmed as Rick, an intern hired by Lou’s imaginary company to help him acquire some of the crime footage. As an actor, Ahmed is unparalleled at playing the “straight guy” when faced with bizarre situations. Think back to Four Lions, where he played Omar, the leading would-be suicide bomber. All the supporting cast rightly got praise for their more clearly defined comic performances, yet Ahmed’s performance in that film grounds it in a reality that ensures the darkness of the film’s premise (suicide bombers go to London to blow up the London marathon) never gets buried beneath the plethora of laugh out loud jokes. Here, he pulls the same trick of applying a human quality to a film that would otherwise just be a vicious satire – something that even Network didn’t possess.
This is clearly the work of a first time director; there are pointless cutaways to irrelevant LA locations as if to mask scene transitions and the less said about the ill-fitting choice of music that plays over the end credits the better. I’m not saying it makes the entire movie feel anti-climactic, but it’s like replacing Ennio Morricone’s score at the closing stand-off scene of The Good the Bad and the Ugly with “We’re Going to Ibiza” by the Vengaboys. Yet the action sequences play like gangbusters; multiple car-chase scenes recall the same 80’s influences Nicolas Winding Refn was lovingly homaging with Drive, whilst a climactic shoot-out at a Chinese restaurant is one of the best executed sequences of the year. Nightcrawler isn’t fully the sum of its parts, but with winning central performances, a blackly comic screenplay and a handful of brilliant set pieces, it is still worth your time.