Movie Review: “Nightcrawler”

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There is a life form in the modern media that is lower than the paparazzo, at least according to the macabre satire “Nightcrawler,” which opens today. It’s the freelance “news” cameraman, the sort of person who makes his living cruising nocturnal suburbs with a pawn-shop police scanner, arriving at grisly crime scenes during, or preferably before, police investigations, to film titillating B-roll for local news operations and their bloodthirsty viewership.

That’s the situation for Louis Bloom, a petty thief and meager hermit, who stumbles upon a flaming car wreck, chats up a freelance cameraman, or “nightcrawler” (played with unctuous gusto by Bill Paxton) and decides to pursue the field himself. Bloom is played, marvelously, by Jake Gyllenhaal, in the creepiest performance of his life. With a gaunt frame, slicked-back hair, sunken eyes and a pencil smile, he looks like Ichabod Crane, or like an animated scarecrow.

He’s also clearly a psychopath, but he’s a functional one. How else to explain his ability to keep it together and focus on editing and framing when filming the blood spurting from a crash victim’s trachea? Soon enough, with Bloom’s products seeing more and more airtime on a local “bleeds-it-leads” news station, he sees the need to up his own ante, and his rates, by deliberately interfering in active crime scenes. He adjusts the items in victims’ homes for aesthetic purposes and moving bodies so they’ll look more attractive in the frame and, eventually, causes crimes himself—because what better way to control a story than by orchestrating its content?

“Nightcrawler” progresses in an elliptical structure that is generally free of surprises, its plot a procession of escalating crimes and news packages, each one more extreme and amoral than the one before it. What makes “Nightcrawler” so brilliant is that it implicates so much of American society under its umbrella, its satirical targets wide enough to encompass predatory capitalism, the shameless news media and the viewers who watch Bloom’s snuff reports. It’s “Network,” “American Psycho” and “Peeping Tom” wrapped into one film.

If there’s a character more contemptuous than Bloom, it’s Nina (another wonderful performance, from Rene Russo), the news director who begins a “special relationship” with Bloom, and who likens her morning newscast to “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” There’s nothing she won’t show on television to improve her ratings, and when Bloom fails to deliver on crucial nights, she adopts the mannerisms of a crack whore—a junkie desperate for a fix of prurience, content even to trade her own body to Bloom to retain his exclusivity.

As for Bloom, he’s a perfect candidate for a CEO, a profession riddled with psychopaths. He’s not only ruthless and lacking empathy, but he speaks in secondhand financial-development aphorisms, the sort proffered by Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie, configuring these pointers of the self-made man to his own warped business model.

So his success is no surprise: He’s playing the corporate game exactly right.