By: Daniel Reynolds
The most arresting sequence in the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire, a fictional account of the making of F.W. Murnau’s classic 1922 film Nosferatu, arrives at the movie’s conclusion. In the scene, Murnau directs the finale of his film set in a claustrophobic, darkened chamber. The “real life vampire” Max Schreck, by now tired of being in Murnau’s employ, sucks the blood of the lead actress, and then kills both the cameraman and producer, only to be destroyed by a wash of sunlight when some crew members force open the chamber door. Through all of this violent horror, Murnau’s camera rolls.
Set a continent away, and almost a century later, writer/director Dan Gilroy‘s debut film Nightcrawler introduces us to Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a haunted looking loner creeping around modern day Los Angeles. With his big eyes, gaunt appearance and endless appetite, Bloom is a shorn head away from being a nouveau-Schreck. The audience is immediately on guard around him for these reasons alone. But Nightcrawler‘s true horror drives beyond such superficiality, magnified as it is through the lens of a camera.
Nightcrawler focuses on the lives of freelance videographers. These aptly named “nightcrawlers” prowl around the city, usually in roughshod vans, looking to grab footage of that night’s car crash, or burning building, or violent crime. The goal is to be there before the cops to record the best – and bloodiest – moments before they are wiped away by dawn. Then, it’s off to sell the footage to the highest bidder amongst the the city’s ravenous TV stations and their morning news broadcast teams.
When we first meet Bloom he is stealing scrap metal in the middle of the night. After a confrontation with a security guard, Lou stumbles upon a car fire and passenger rescue on one of LA’s many highways. He sees a man with a camera, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), catching the moment on film and it is as if the blaze illuminates a whole new career path for him. Shortly afterwards, Bloom has his own camera and police scanner. He is armed and ready to find the city’s late night violence.
Despite his unnerving presence, Bloom operates more like another famed – albeit pleasant – psychopath: the original Psycho, Norman Bates. Throughout the film, Bloom’s actions are framed by his calm and careful diction. He hires a confused, desperate man named Rick (Riz Ahmed) to be his navigator after subjecting him to a wave of biz-speak and self-help questioning. He slides into the good graces of news director Nina (Rene Russo) with a combination of strident TED-talking and ingratiation. He learns from and then competes with the other nightcrawlers – Loder doesn’t like it – because, well, isn’t that the proven nature of entrepreneurship? Bloom smiles broadly, listens carefully, and nods thoughtfully. In many scenes, he hardly appears to blink. We come to understand that Bloom has educated himself largely via the internet. From his nondescript apartment, a more genteel version of Bloom would have been a message board troll, applying his presumed logical certitude to commentary. Instead, Nightcrawler has him in the streets; the certitude is still there but it projects outwardly into a new scary brand of entitlement.
By this point, Nightcrawler is taking a plain stab at our society’s obsession with violence as news. The hook of Gilroy’s script lies in the old adage “if it bleeds, it leads.” But then, in this modern day when information is power and everyone has a camera, this only tells half of the story. The presence of Russo, with her faded beauty and Faye Dunaway-circa-Network exhalations, and Paxton, with his grizzled cowboy shtick, demonstrate the evolution of this intent. These are two fine actors from the past playing people hanging on tightly to what they know. Russo’s Nina wants ratings and is only mildly uneasy with how Bloom works to get them. Paxton’s Loder, meanwhile, figures his veteran know-how will keep him on top of his chosen profession. But they are no match for Bloom as he hungrily learns how to play the “nightcrawler” game. Our unease is confirmed as we gradually understand just how far he’ll go – to get into Nina’s bed, to out-work Loder, to find the best shot.
To project that eerie mix of friendliness and contained rage, an actor like Gyllenhaal is vital. Having gotten romantic comedies and tent-pole summer movies out of the way, Gyllenhaal has settled into performances that capitalize on his oddly singular presence. He’s good looking sure, but here in Nightcrawler he’s lost weight to accentuate and sharpen his features. At times his hair is in a top knot like that of a deranged ronin. Beyond those surface measures, Gyllenhaal’s trick here is profoundly internal. His Bloom can be cold and clinical, or alternatively hyper-charged and smiling. We are both terrified of what he is capable of, and bemused by his ability to achieve it. He acts as mentor to Rick, confidante to Nina, and rival to Loder; he gives the TV news and its newscasters the awe he thinks they desire. Gyllenhaal imbues all these interactions with a surface appropriateness even as the underlying tension of his performance shines through. We are inevitably grossed out by Bloom, but also enamoured – even as he slides from finding the news, to shaping it, to creating it.
Having been a screenwriter and little brother to the talented Tony, Dan Gilroy has learned to be confident behind the camera. His Nightcrawler is being marketed as an action-crime film. (Note the poster with the blazing red car, the energetic font, the “From the producers of Drive“.) It wants an audience that is ready for a dive into the seedy side of Los Angeles, complete with thrilling car chases and confrontations between shady characters. Gilroy gives us all that with brilliant night visions of LA and muscular action sequences involving guns and cars that crackle with energy. But its Halloween release date is no accident: this is a horror film. It’s protagonist may hold a camera instead of a knife, but Gilroy captures that same classic slasher pose, weapon of choice held high over head. His themes regarding technology are new, but the spirit of the filmed psychopathy is familiar.
Murnau’s desire for the perfect composition of horror was embodied in that 2000 film, and probably existed as far back as Nosferatu‘s original production. Like him, Bloom hungers to direct the action. The availability of a how-to plan found online only confirms his chosen path’s correctness. A lesser film would have centred on the by now tired idea of TV news’ glorification of the violence it portends to decry. The movie Gilroy has made finds a new depth from which to plum its creeping horror. Bloom may lack Schreck’s fangs, but with his camera he’ll do everything he can to draw out the blood.