Directed by: Dan Gilroy
Premise: A down on his luck but driven man (Jake Gyllenhaal) begins filming accidents and crime scenes and sells the footage to local television stations. He finds that the more salacious the imagery the greater the reward and he begins to use unscrupulous methods.
What Works: Nightcrawler is a smart and slickly produced thriller. The movie was shot by Robert Elswit, the cinematographer who frequently works with Paul Thomas Anderson, and the movie has images that are striking without distracting the viewer with their unusualness. The film frequently takes place at night and Elswit takes advantage of that darkness, effectively using shadows and the neon lights of signs and storefronts. The film also features a soundtrack by James Newton Howard and the music of Nightcrawler recalls his scores for Collateral and The Dark Knight in the way it mixes traditional musical sounds with electronic elements, reflecting the cityscape in which the movie takes place. This is a well told story and it is admirable in the way it is narratively very lean, moving briskly from one plot beat to the next, while also allowing for a lot of storytelling texture and rich characterizations. The film has tremendous dramatic energy that builds over the course of the story before reaching a thrilling climax. Nightcrawler is also rewarding in how smart it is. This film is partly a character study of a psychopath, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and his performance is one of the great portrayals of psychopathology in a motion picture. The personality of Gyllenhaal’s character is off in just the right way and he speaks like someone who learned to talk by reading self-help books. But at the same time he possesses a narrow minded resolve and a charm that makes it believable that he could succeed in manipulating other people. The other smart element of Nightcrawler is its critique of media and capitalism. While in search of a job, Gyllenhaal’s character discovers free-lance photographers who use police scanners to find accidents and crime scenes and capture sensational footage that they can sell to local news networks. Gyllenhaal’s character sets up his own business and finds he has great success because his own amorality is rewarded by the system. In that respect, Nightcrawler is reminiscent of 1976’s Network and like that film it treads on the edge of satire.
What Doesn’t: Nightcrawler is an example of a movie where dramatic priorities run up against reality. This is the case in virtually every dramatic movie and especially in stories dealing with the nuts and bolts of a specific profession. Nightcrawler presents a character who bends and in some cases clearly violates the law in order to capture sensational footage. That isn’t so incredible but the film also features a local news outlet collaborating with him and paying large sums of money for illegally obtained footage. Viewers who come to Nightcrawler and are knowledgeable of the laws regarding broadcast content and privacy rules will see the points at which the storytelling and reality collide. Ultimately this isn’t a serious detriment to the movie since the members of the news crew debate these problems and it’s clear that Gyllenhaal’s character deceives and manipulates everyone into rewarding him. Where Nightcrawler is somewhat more unbelievable is in the ways it’s behind the times. Contrary to the way they are portrayed in this film, contemporary television news outlets rarely broadcast much violence, especially the violent and gory imagery shown here. Rather, much of today’s television news is sanitized, as evidenced by the largely bloodless reporting from contemporary warzones. Footage of this violent sort is far more likely to show up online on websites that allow for unregulated user generated content. In that respect, Nightcrawler is anachronistic.
Bottom Line: The shortcomings of Nightcrawler are largely immaterial, especially in light of how much it does well. This is a smart, provocative, and highly entertaining movie with a great performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.
Episode: #518 (November 16, 2014)