Nightcrawler: A Review
‘Nightcrawler’ opens with an empty billboard. A few seconds later, we’ll see the indistinguishable grid lines and palm trees that’ll tell us we’re in Los Angeles. However, in the opening frame of screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut all we’re shown is an empty billboard, in a city where billboards represent both an affirmation of success (in having the capital to pay for space on one) and a cry of desperation (relying on those you don’t know for your own prosperity). The object presents itself as a canvas, an item which can go from nothing to something with one paint-job reimagining, which is exactly what Jake Gyllenhaal’s lead character, Louis ‘Lou’ Bloom, seeks for himself.
The opening credits soon roll, and the viewer is presented with further voids in the form of drive-thrus without cars, silent hills and sterile highways: images that bring with them a sense that life is happening elsewhere. In one shot a plane flies overhead, in another an empty road implies that the city’s cars have chosen another locale to cruise. The viewer feels themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is exactly where Bloom’s character finds himself in his first appearance, caught in the act of breaking through a fence to obtain scrap metal. Bloom’s animalistic reaction to his predicament is perhaps the first exposure of Gyllenhaal’s well-documented approach to the character as a coyote, but in the scene he’s more reminiscent of a magpie – maniacally drawn, like so many who venture to California, to those things that shine and glitter in the dark.
The empty spaces represent a theme of vacancy that manifests itself throughout the film in several different forms, though perhaps most clearly in the moral vacancy that informs the success of the news channel in whose editing rooms much of the film’s drama ensues. The station is run by Nina Romina, played by a resurgent Rene Russo, who tells an eager Bloom in their first encounter that the footage they’re looking for, (and that he, as a stringer, should be trying to film for them), is of a victim who is “white”, and preferably “injured at the hands of the poor or a minority.” In her less than elegant speech, Romina also attempts to justify her attitude, explaining that “a carjacking in Compton…that’s not news is it?”
If moral vacancy is one recurrent characteristic of the film, then duplicates are another leitmotif. There is the chorus of morning network channels, vying for eyes over breakfast, distinguishable only through the colour scheme of their title sequences. Returning to the opening images of the film, duplicates appear in rows of identical buses, and in the lights and rows of the Los Angeles cityscape, which viewed from afar or above blur together into identical clusters of dots and angles. The whisper-thin lines of the LA grid system also hint at the fine lines that make up the city’s culture; between civilian and celebrity, success and failure, paparazzo and criminal.
The lights of the city, and the cultural affiliations behind them, are ever present also in the eyes and ideals of Gyllenhaal’s character. Behind his pupils flash the reflections of the lights around him; blue, red and white dots flicker across his cornea during a police chase, yellows and oranges when looking out over the landscape. These embers are made noticeable through Gyllenhaal’s dramatic weight-loss for the role, which hollowed out his facial features to a point of stasis where the only available signs of movement come from his globular eyes.
The lights of a city in the eyes of a young man or woman have always represented ambition and excitement, both of which are instantly apparent traits of Bloom’s character. As Bloom says himself, “having been raised with the self-esteem movement so popular in schools”, one could expect him to see success and affluence as one of his basic human rights. As Gilroy’s script is keen to point out however, Bloom is also a character raised by the Internet, in a city where self-improvement banalities permeate the air as much as the carbon dioxide emitted by cars and breath. This is a character who chooses to espouse ersatz platitudes such as “Why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue”, rather than attempting to foster any real conversational, human connection.
If Bloom is shown as a product of his environment, then ‘Nightcrawler’ is one also. Nowhere other than LA could the confidence, amorality and passivity of the film’s emotional landscape seem as quotidian as it does, and intermittent shots of LA’s iconic sites remind the viewer both of the proximity and distance of the characters to the type of cultural recognition to which they aspire. It is a similarly tantalizing false sense of proximity to the one the internet affords its users, offering the chance to see pictures of places and people that detach them from their own environment and lull them into thinking they belong to another. When Bloom, frustrated after his co-worker’s slow reactions cost him a shot, professes to have read a multitude of studies that conclude that “Communication is the key to success”, there is an underlying tone of tragedy. Bloom’s communications come in the form of Internet use, and whatever success he may achieve will come without the joy of being able to communicate and celebrate that success with a friend or loved one.
It has been remarked upon, and is certainly interesting, that Gilroy didn’t include a sex scene in the film, or even an example of Bloom using social media or Internet chat-rooms to engage on a somewhat human level with a peer. But to Bloom his internal, private activities are irrelevant, so why should we care? He is interested solely in the way he appears to others, a characteristic endemic to the surface culture in California especially but also wider American, and Western, society.
Along with its obsession with surface, Los Angeles’ status culture has also stained Bloom’s mindset. Presumably having learned from the self-help guides he himself proclaims to devour (it is hard to know whether any of Bloom’s speech and mannerisms developed naturally), he engages in a false sense of familiarity with superiors, introducing himself as Lou, yet when interviewing a prospective employee for a position is stern in his affirmation that his name is ‘Louis’ after one potential hire addresses him as ‘Lou’.
In one of the film’s closing sequences, Bloom instructs a group around him that “if there’s one thing I’ve learned”, it’s that although “you may be confused at times…the surest way up the ladder is to listen carefully and follow my rules”. In this parting instruction, Bloom diagnoses himself and his generation to his audience. In a society that tells you to follow convention and rules while simultaneously heralding the rule-breakers and risk-takers, all one can do is march forward, with blind optimism and a robotic worship of authority, striving to improve and document themselves and everything around them as they go.