“Compassion is the basis of morality.” ― Arthur Schopenhauer
That above quote, by philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is one that barely reflects on Nightcrawler; a film less so about sociopathic tendencies and more so about moral ambiguity; the film is an extreme example of one who is beyond a moral compass, and thrives off the pain of others. Another recent film which echoed, to a lesser degree, a number of the same thematic principles that Nightcrawler touches upon was Damian Chazelle’s astounding picture Whiplash, which also addressed the human’s desire to achieve and position themselves. Nightcrawler takes the characters, their motivations and their will and ups the ante by a hundred, giving us two ‘protagonists’ who test the viewer’s boundaries on what they perceive as entertaining, and what they perceive as flat- out disturbing.
The film centres around Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal); an incredibly diligent, hardworking man, who also happens to be a petty thief. After spotting a car wreck and investigating the damage, Lou spots two men shooting footage of the scene, and they inform him of their intent to sell it on to a news agency so that the agency can broadcast the images on television. Lou believes this a good way to make some money, and goes out, buys a camera and a police scanner, and begins to shoot crime scenes of his own, whilst forming a professional relationship with a news director (Rene Russo) who appreciates Lou’s commitment, drive and work ethic.
Nightcrawler is at once both an immediately horrifying film, but one that is hard to look away from, just like the scenes that Lou and his assistant Rick are shooting to sell off to news agencies. Despite our knowledge that what we’re seeing goes against our own ingrained decency, we can’t help but stare in awe of the vulgar and brutal sights before us. Director Dan Gilroy takes us into the shady and highly unpleasant Los Angeles underground, and takes us on an unsettling journey with a man who is obviously deranged, but highly likable. He is addictive. His monologues are gorgeous, rivaling that of Jordan Belfort’s from last years brilliant The Wolf of Wall Street. He has a charisma that we don’t often see from other characters on screen. Part of this is due to Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, which is transformative, smart and entirely horrid (in the best way possible), and part of this is down the sensational writing, also provided by Gilroy, who provides a voice for this insane individual.
To maintain a semblance of normality, Lou adopts a fake smile; a persona that carries through the entirety of the film. Even at his most raw, or at his most personal, Lou still maintains that carefree, homely, almost loving smile, inviting you to join him in his car as he does unspeakable deeds. Intervening in crime scenes before the cops arrive, or even planting his own information to provide a better story; there is no ground which Lou will not cover. It’s at once astonishing and yet still riveting and entertaining; the viewer cannot help but stare in admiration for this character who is doing such things. But it’s not these unspeakable deeds that harrow the most vividly; as aforementioned, it’s the calculated and never-failing persona that he projects to everyone around him that unsettles us the most. The first scene of the film helps to establish the real Lou, who is a man who is willing to do anything, and this allows us to see him for who he really is as the movie plods on and somewhat, in its own way, tries to convince you that Lou is an OK guy. Which you may almost believe by the end of this adrenaline rush of a film.
Despite Lou’s obvious sociopathic nature, we still root for him as he rides around the streets of Los Angeles, intent on getting to a crime scene first and grabbing the best angles achievable. These scenes are exhilarating and heart-pumping primarily due to quick editing and fantastic cinematography, provided by John Gilroy and Robert Elswit respectively, who add drama and mayhem to this already fast-paced escapade. Their work is undoubtable. In terms of the cinematography, the film is absolutely outstanding; Elswit captures the gritty and dark nature of the urban Los Angeles, and embraces hand held. A vast majority of the shots seem utterly simplistic, but they add to the realism of the picture; positioned flat, focusing on the characters alone. There are few high or low angles, only when it serves a highly dramatic purpose, and so we are brought into this tale of deception, madness and drive with supposed simplicity.
The score, by James Newton Howard further engrosses, reflecting the evil and darkness that actually lies within news journalism and television news broadcasting. As the morning news is turned on by Lou at the beginning of the picture, the chirpy main themes of the programs contrast with Howard’s undercurrent of low ambiance and danger. It resembles something that we do not perceive the news to generally be, and it is immediately noticeable and riveting. As a contrast, when Lou is performing heinous acts, the music is heroic, almost applauding his efforts. That’s what Nightcrawler is; a film which applauds strive and drive, despite its consequences. It’s entertaining, oddly funny, brilliantly acted (Russo and Gyllenhaal providing career-defining performances) and directed with pace and furious intentions. The themes are vibrant and highly interesting. This is brilliant film-making, however morally ambiguous. I can not wait to return to the shady underlings of this version of Los Angeles.
10 out of 10 stars