Nightcrawler ★★★★

“On TV it looks so real.”

The chonmage was a traditional Japanese male hairstyle, usually associated with the samurai of the Edo period. Consisting of long hair oiled and tied into a topknot (commonly with the top of the head shaved), it is the formal name of what might colloquially be called the “samurai bun.” While it began as a practical device—the knot was used to hold the samurai’s helmet in place—it eventually became a status symbol in Japanese culture, which is to say, it became a thing that existed to draw attention to itself and its bearer.

In Japan, the chonmage fell out of common use, consigning itself to the province of sumo practitioners. But in the West, the chonmage has recently come into fashion among a certain set of young men, popularized by the Jared Letos and Cary Fukunagas and Harry Styleses of the world. And as it had come to be previously, the bun’s chief purpose is to shine on its owner a spotlight. All grooming exists, among other reasons, to sculpt an image—even a simple shower, in addition to its other benefits, marks the showered one as hygienic. Through one’s clothing and styling and general deportment, one makes a statement—“I’m professional,” perhaps, or “I’m free-spirited,” or “I’ve given up on human contact.” But sometimes the statement is, first and foremost, “Look at me.

It makes sense, then, that Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) often ties his hair in a chonmage-like topknot. As with so much of Lou’s behavior, it is mimicry divorced from any underlying humanity. But it is also attention-seeking. Everything Lou does cries out for notice. He is constantly thrusting something—a camera, an extortionist threat, the whites of his eyes—into others’ faces. Lou is driven to succeed, in ways both morally abhorrent and sadly familiar, but the terms of Lou’s success require the recognition of his fellow man. It is no coincidence that one of his most impassioned demands is for proper name-checking, in both graphic and verbal form, of his enterprise: Video Production News, a professional news-gathering service.

Names and modes of address, of course, speak volumes. Lou knows this—it is why to Nina (Rene Russo), desperate graveyard-shift news producer, he presents himself as “Lou,” the casually obsequious, ingratiating up-and-comer, while to Rick (Riz Ahmed), the dimwitted homeless man Lou hires as an assistant, he presents himself as “Louis,” the superior who is not to be addressed by the crude informality of a nickname. But when given the opportunity to craft a name from whole cloth, Lou chooses “Video Production News, a professional news-gathering service.” It is...accurate, I suppose, if semantically generous. It bears the hallmarks of a legitimate company doing legitimate work. But it somehow, as though translated from a foreign language. It’s hard to put one’s finger on precisely what is wrong with the name—perhaps it is the coda, which insists upon the operation’s professionalism and validity in a manner Queen Gertrude would find suspect. No amount of well-sequenced business-speak can lend credence to a sociopath’s operations.

Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler makes no pretense as to its antihero’s psychological state. It begins with Lou stealing scrap metal from a construction site, blatantly (and unconvincingly) lying to the site’s security guard, then beating that security guard senseless (and, for all we know, dead) in order to avoid prosecution (and stealing his watch in the process). Lou’s distorted and relentless drive for self-actualization leads him to want a career in line with his morally colorblind ambitions, and he happens to stumble on just such a vocation at an auto accident site where camera-laden vultures steal graphic footage for auction to the highest-bidding local television news station. It is a path that suits the predatory, nocturnal Lou perfectly.

Much can be said about Nightcrawler’s and Lou’s pop cultural parallels—to toxic media satires like Ace in the Hole and Network, to studies in deranged self-absorption amid urban underbellies like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Yet none of those comparisons do Gilroy’s film many favors. Nightcrawler’s observations about the soulless depravity of the news media seem set in a strange universe in which cable news and the Internet do not exist and rarely stray beyond the jejune “if it bleeds, it leads” / “won’t somebody think of the children?” dyad. As good as his performers are (and they are all excellent), Gilroy’s moralizing has all the anti-subtlety of Chayefsky or Haneke with little of Network’s demented wit or the Austrian maestro’s clinical iciness to offset it. And neither Lou nor Gilroy’s script can hold a candle to Scorsese’s early masterpieces of municipal decay and psychotic delusions of grandeur.

But that matters little when Nightcrawler plays to its considerable strengths as a scuzzy thriller about the unholy offspring of a self-help guide and a Six Sigma manual. Gyllenhaal is as mannered as usual (and as terrific as usual of late), his gaunt frame lending Lou an alien quality (accentuated by unblinking, terrifyingly intense eyes). Gyllenhaal manages to invest Lou with a stirring sense of intelligence, drive, and ambition to go along with his complete lack of moral bellwether. Arranging accident scenes for maximum grotesquerie and ignoring civic duty like most people ignore a mild headache, Lou’s progress from petty misdemeanors and ethical no-nos to the most severe of felonies makes its own sort of internal sense as a business plan while being utterly horrifying to gaze upon. Just as disquieting is Lou’s clear (and self-acknowledged) lack of empathy. Speaking only in lingo derived from seminar handouts and darkest online rabbit holes, Lou wears a disingenuous smile that he occasionally pairs with an equally insincere laugh, miming what his observations have told him is the behavior of an affable but driven go-getter, a guise he trades for threats and insinuations once he senses a suitable shift in the power dynamic. Unlike Travis Bickle, Lou does not fancy himself an avenging angel out to rid the city's streets of scum—he merely wants to climb the mountain as fast as possible, the better to be gazed upon with fear and loathing. That the mountain is constructed of the feces of a century's worth of vermin is of little consequence.

Russo and Ahmed are equally good as the craven, careless Nina and the sad, pliable Rick, respectively. While Nina pursues ratings at all costs, openly favoring tales of threatened white privilege over anything approaching journalistic integrity, there is a weariness to Russo’s performance that suggests Nina is less a dismay-mongering cretin than a worker bee resigned to her sad lot in life. And Rick’s slow awakening to Lou’s depravity provides Nightcrawler with a belated sense of moral compass—a sense that is sadly not paired by Rick with enough mental agility to slow Lou’s destructiveness.

As good as Russo and Ahmed are, however, Nightcrawler’s focus remains squarely on Lou. When that focus is on Lou’s increasingly unethical tactics, Gilroy’s film sizzles, particularly in an extended late sequence involving an apparent home invasion gone terribly wrong and its aftermath. Combining the horror, procedural, and action genres to delirious effect, Gilroy (aided by Robert Elswit’s gorgeous cinematography) captures a Los Angeles that is at once frighteningly seedy and hypnotically beautiful.

Occasionally Gilroy’s script drifts into incoherence—particularly hard to swallow are Lou’s demands of sexual favors from Nina given the emphasis on Lou’s lack of recognizable humanoid sensation. And the ending leaves something to be desired, straining for an “evil triumphs over good” gut-punch and holding several beats longer than it should (why Gilroy didn’t cut to black immediately after Lou’s oily speech to his newest acolytes is tremendously puzzling). But Gyllenhaal pulls the threads together admirably, creating a compelling character out of a man who exists as nothing but voracious caricature. When Lou tells Rick that his trouble is not that he fails to understand people, but rather that he doesn’t like them, it is a threat masquerading as advice masquerading as self-analysis. And yet it is thoroughly wrong-headed. Lou is right to say that he understands people, in much the same way that Cruella de Vil understood puppies. But for Lou to dislike people assumes an emotional module that his system completely lacks. Lou does not dislike because he is incapable of disliking—instead, he simply does not care.

Roger O. Thornhill said that, in the advertising world, there is no such thing as a lie, only the expedient exaggeration. In Lou Bloom’s world, there is only expediency as an end in itself, chasing a spotlight receding down a long road to nowhere. And it looks so real on TV.

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