Within minutes of his first appearance it is very apparent who Louis Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler, is. He is a liar, he can be violent, he is ambitious, he is friendly but not personable. He is off-putting. The standard praise for a compelling character like this is ‘charismatic’, but Bloom is decidedly not charismatic, he is assertive for sure, but his approach relies on disarming people rather than charming them, he presents them with a truth (not necessarily the truth), he catches them off guard, he makes people feel like they have to see things his way. The audience when I went to see Nightcrawler were frequently laughing awkwardly, the way they might if confronted by a person like this in real life. It is a great performance by Gyllenhaal. So why didn’t I like Nightcrawler more?
Bloom’s whole deal is that he and his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed from 4 Lions) drive around Los Angeles, listening to a police scanner. When they hear about a violent crime or accident, they and other ‘nightcrawlers’ arrive on the scene like vultures, shoot the grizzly aftermath on their cameras and sell the footage to local news affiliates. Putting aside Gyllenhaal’s creepiness, clearly his character’s pursuit is not a very noble one. The news people in the film openly favour footage that allows them to present a problematic narrative of “urban” crime leaking into the suburbs. These nightcrawlers have few if any journalistic credentials and Bloom pushes what they do further than most, getting in the way, upsetting witnesses. He is a voyeur. First time director Dan Gilroy does a good job conveying the world of these men, a dark and cold city, where sickeningly bright lights whiz by as they drive too quickly to places where someone has died violently. It’s an environment that feels dangerous, but the problem is that the protagonist rarely feels as if he is in any danger.
Perhaps it was just me, but at times it felt that Nightcrawler was too enamoured by its main character, to the point where I began wondering if I was actually supposed to find Bloom to be a creepy weirdo. Some spoilers are going to follow, so if you haven’t seen the film yet beware, but I am interested to see if anyone else felt as unsatisfied with how things played out as I did. Bloom efforts to be successful lead to him pushing the boat out further and further, his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. Bill Paxton is rivalling our hero in the nightcrawling business, so he arranges for Bloom to have an ‘accident’, Godfather style. This is ridiculous. Bloom is attracted to Rene Russo, his boss at the news station, so he forces her to be in a relationship and to push him up the ladder in return for his footage. Yet by the end of the film she is enamoured with his way of doing things. This is gross. Bloom withholds information about a crime and manipulates events which lead to several deaths and although the police know about it, he gets away scot-free. His escalation never leads to any bad consequences for him and by the end of the film he has everything he wanted. There is no tension in watching someone succeed without struggling and I didn’t feel like Bloom had much to struggle with, so you end up with a character that is more interesting that the story he is in.
Ultimately I found Nightcrawler to be a frustrating experience. Gyllenhaal and the supporting cast are very good, the direction is appropriately voyeurtistic and eerie and impressive for a first timer and the dialogue is good even if other aspects of the script are weak (Paxton being rubbed out, the convenient way Bloom discovers nightcrawling, the hackneyed ‘screaming into a mirror and breaking it’ scene). But in the end it felt like a lot of build up without a satisfying pay off. Nightcrawler wastes its interesting protagonist by never truly challenging him.