Nightcrawler isn’t perfect. For one, it is an unabashedly visual film, and when it tries to be a screenplay it sort of falls apart. Director Dan Gilroy himself is a screenwriter making his directorial debut, but watching I had him pegged for a cinematographer trying out the boss man’s chair. Whenever he tries to really give it to the news media as a whole (which thankfully isn’t often) the film goes overboard. One of the film’s lynchpin scenes has a television executive trying to enliven a broadcast of some grisly imagery by amping up the dread and fear of the material to unnatural levels (and making implicit racism fairly explicit in the process). It doesn’t work – the material is insistent, overly confident, and has the subtlety of the more farcical aspects of Network. Except everything here is played with such solemnity it doesn’t work like satire; rather, Gilroy wants us to feel crushed and haunted. But the material is so lead-footed when spoken out to us it almost hurts.
Now that this is out of the way, let the review proper commence, for if the film is deeply imperfect, it is also one of the most positively alive, electric, essential works of filmmaking invention released this year. Yes, the story is there for those who need it; besides the news media critique, the center of the work is Louis Bloom (an eye-opening Jake Gyllenhaal), a perturbed, malnourished walking flesh wound of a person who takes an interest in nightcrawling for a living (nightcrawling is the act of independently filming accidents and crimes to freelance sell the tapes to news media for their broadcasts). His aloof assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) in tow, he slowly descends down the hellhole of life on the night streets, and finds he enjoys it quite a bit more than he might have suspected. But, if the story is there on paper, the film doesn’t prove especially invested in this story at any point. Which is good, by the way, for Gilroy has a far more interesting focus skulking about beneath the surface, ready to pounce and chew his audience to bits with its greasy immediacy and fiendish, deliberately cruel mise-en-scene.
If Gilroy stumbles heavily as a scriptwriter (to be honest, he’s never really written anything of value anyway), he proves a dumb-foundingly inspired director. None of it is subtle per-se – at times the directing is as obvious as the writing – but it has such a feverish energy and stripped simplicity it can’t but induce spasms of brilliance. There’s an undeniable air of ’70s crime-thrillers to the film, the kind of aesthetically barren, brittle aesthetic only seen today in the works of Michael Mann and Nicolas Winding Refn. As such, if its script is emotionally distant, its filmmaking is ready to suck our emotions dry with its clinical descent into boxed-off madness.
Gilroy does take a page from Mann’s playbook, keeping things at arms’ length (he’s too visceral and direct to owe much to the more elegiac tone poems of Refn), adopting a moody blue strapped of emotions. But he adds quite a bit to Mann’s distant aesthetic, namely piercing close-ups that push us right up against what is marked off as distant to us, without ever actually connecting us to any of it. Thus, the boxed-off nature of the film becomes all the more brittle, always threatening to break without ever falling apart. Gilroy accomplishes this even more with his chief marker for Louis’ presence: his piercing red car, darting through the frame and edited so that it leaves more of an abstract, subliminal impression as color than a more concrete one as a physical object. It breaks through the frame, and the aesthetic, and keeps us uneasy about every frame in which it appears, never letting the blue-ness warm from chilly to cool.
In a sense, Nightcrawler works as anti-Oscarbait. While most films take all pains to hide their style, this one foregrounds it to the point where it is intentionally distracting (while most films of this budget eliminate any semblance of film grain, the day-time cinematography is all about grain). For that matter, it works as much as a technical achievement as it does a story: among other notable features, the film was shot by Robert Elswit, who is most certainly a great cinematographer and a prime pick by Gilroy. I’d go so far as to say the film’s story is the way its cinematography defines Louis as a character more than anything in the script. It’s a study in filmmaking; during the day, it was shot on film, and at night on digital video, and perhaps no major motion picture release has ever so openly thrived on the alert, exciting contrast between the two. During the day, the raw heat of the oppressive grain marks Louis as the outcast – these scenes don’t feel like they belong with the night-focused story. The digital cinematography, meanwhile, brings a slick fakery to the nighttime that seems distressingly clinical and “unreal”, and it imbues the film with a false coolness intentionally undercut by the pointedly un-cool day-time. The point, in essence, is that we are supposed to realize how false Louis’ nightlife is, how pent-up on his own energetic lies it can’t but be. In doing so, the film suggests him an unreliable narrator so oily and serpentine we can’t but distrust any scene in which he appears.
At the center of it all is Gilroy’s greatest achievement: Jake Gyllenhaal, who is a constantly ticking time bomb of anxious black energy, a lightning rod begging to be struck. It’s a restless performance, notable not only as an example of anguished physical transformation but as a work of extreme emotional depravity and obfuscation. It’s a dreary, angry performance that keels over and sucks the energy from everything around it only to spit it back out in fuller force. His work is rampaging and full-bore, paranoid and self-confident in equal measure, never comfortable with one or the other. Even when he has no idea what he’s doing.
He’s not unlike the film, in that regard. It’s messy and imperfect. It’s deeply confused about a screenplay that takes us down indulgent pathways it has no business even eyeing in the first place (the last fifteen minutes, for instance, are leaden over-statatement). Like its protagonist, and not because it is trying to ape its protagonist, Nightcrawler is far too self-aware about its own seediness, thrusting its grime upon audiences with a calculated, slick professionalism rather than letting it stew and lurk in the sidelines. Or violently assault us like, say, the real-deal-grindhouse Texas Chainsaw Massacre, compared to which, Nightcrawler is just a costume party pretending to get naughty and vicious while retaining a sense of composure that is at odds with its unhinged visage. Part of this is to say that the film’s seediness is too prepackaged to “mean” something, to slide into the film’s punishingly obvious social critique, not nearly as genuinely risky as a real B-picture which usually plays its themes subtextually, or just rips apart its themes altogether with the sheer gnarled-beauty of its own viciousness. Nightcrawler, relative to a hundred or two classic ’70s B-pictures I could name here, is hopelessly literal, defeated because it foregrounds its “argument” so much that it can never transcend that argument. But it takes all these flaws (mostly) in stride under its Satanic strut, and invades your very presence anyway. It’s a riotously mangled, purgatorial thunderbolt of a film, necrotic and noxious in equal measure, and – when it isn’t too busy mummifying itself with its “themes, man” – it’s quite a lively, spontaneous creation indeed.
Score: 8/10 (edited after I looked back upon the film with a touch more of the ol’ rigor)