A Show of Character: the Performances of “Nightcrawler”

Written by: Sacha Husband

Edited by: Anchi Lin

Nightcrawler @ Scotiabank Theatre. November 16th

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“Nightcrawler” 2014. Festival Poster.

With the sensibilities of audiences changing, we are beginning to see a shift take place with the style of films currently entering the “mainstream”. The success of gritty, contemplative crime features like 2011’s “Drive” show a hearkening back to the slower paced, character driven stories of the 1970s[1]. In those films, we saw filmmakers hold up protagonists who sometimes have sinister motivations or traits, something that gives characters like Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver” a longevity, and popularity which can still be seen today[2]. Audiences may not relate to DeNiro’s portrayal of a psychotic cab driver, but there is something oddly compelling about him in the role; that being said, it is this sort of character appeal that Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” is tapping into. “Nightcrawler” is one in a long line of recent films that focuses on an ostensibly anti-hero who’s twisted drive, and motivations are what make the story successful. Through an incredibly dedicated performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, we see a return to films putting characters at the heart of a story’s progression, and not simply making them subordinate to it.

The film opens on glamourized shots of Los Angeles at night time, with neon billboards, and amber lampposts illuminating the secluded streets of a sleeping city. Soon after, we are introduced to Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal), a low life thief who seemingly doesn’t have too many prospects for his future. After stopping at the side of a highway to investigate a car crash, Lou notices freelance videographers capturing the scene with the intention of selling the footage to news networks the next day. Lou immediately becomes enamoured with the idea of filming gruesome stories himself, and invests in equipment that will allow him to work independently as a photographer. With a camcorder, and police scanner, Lou gradually builds up his portfolio by covering car crashes, shootings, murders, and basically any horrific event that will sell for TV news. As Lou becomes more experienced, he goes to greater, and more disturbing lengths to make sure his footage will sell. The film culminates in Lou staging a police shootout with wanted criminals, and sacrificing his assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), by putting him in the line of fire, just for the purposes of getting the most decidedly dramatic shots. Despite questioning, and investigation from the police, Lou is not implicated in the crime, and the film ends with Lou in control of a growing business, free to continue covering grisly accidents, and events.

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Jake Gyllenhaal on the set of “Nightcrawler” 2014. GEVA/AKM-GSI.

As touched on earlier, “Nightcrawler” is a film that succeeds in knowing exactly the affect that its protagonist has on an audience, and filmmaker Dan Gilroy exploits this to its fullest potential. Gyllenhaal, who himself lost 20 pounds for the role, truly does a masterful job of portraying the depravity that comes by wanting to profit from video-taping other people’s misfortune. The character of Lou is not made out to be likeable in the slightest. He is a wiry, leering individual who from the films inception should be viewed as a scumbag. The first time we see Lou, he is stealing copper wiring from a rail yard at night, and when he is eventually discovered, he kills a security guard for his watch. This informs the audience very early on of not only Lou’s background, that being the kind of work he is involved in, but also of the psychotic impulses that motivate him. Though Lou doesn’t kill anyone himself throughout the rest of the film, the audience now knows that he possesses little remorse, which sets up our understanding of the extremes he will go to when staging events later on. The dialogue the character speaks further establishes this character trait, as Lou is very calculated in his approach to interacting with other people, and over time this reveals his manipulative nature. He is shown to both lie to those close to him, as well as hyper analyse the situations he enters as a means of ascertaining control, going as far as forcing his boss Nina (Rene Russo) to enter into a relationship with him. The perspective of watching a psychopath learn and develop as a character is a curious one, as audiences have typically come to know psychopaths to occupy the roles of villains, not heroes. We have few options other than accepting that Lou is the person who we are supposed to follow, and as much as we don’t empathize with him, we are nonetheless implicated in his progression as a liar, manipulator, and murderer.

Robert Elswit DOP. "Nightcrawler" 2014. Lou Bloom in a manic scene.

Robert Elswit DOP. “Nightcrawler” 2014. Lou Bloom in a manic scene.

“Nightcrawler” is exemplary of representing a world that contemporary audiences want to see. Characters like Lou Bloom don’t represent themselves as paragons of human achievement, in the way that Rocky Balboa does in Rocky IV, but rather they manifest the seediness that lives in the crime ridden underbellies of all cities[3]. There is a sense that audiences want to be unsettled, to know that virtue, and goodness are not qualities that carry their expectations any longer. This perspective is still new to our understanding, and not every character yet acts this way. If they did, there would be more scenes like the head smashing sequence carried out by Ryan Gosling’s character in “Drive”. Still though, it says something about our own desires that we appear interested in these characters who act despicably, judging them from a distance, without the consideration of how they might be relating to us on some level. “Nightcrawler” throws us out of this position, and puts us right beside Lou through every decision he makes. We are not separate from his goals and ambitions; we are right beside him, and we see too much.

Notes:

[1] Drive http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drive_(2011_film)

[2] Taxi Driver http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taxi_Driver

[3] Rocky IV http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocky_IV

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