Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a driven young man desperate for work who discovers the high-speed world of L.A. crime. Finding a group of freelance camera crews who film crashes, fires, murder and other mayhem, Lou muscles into the cut-throat, dangerous realm of nightcrawling where each police siren wail equals a possible windfall and victims are converted into dollars. Aided by Nina (Rene Russo), a veteran of the blood-sport that is local TV news, Lou blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story.
Every so often, I sit down to write a review and hit a wall. I want to talk about the movie, to delve into the characters and themes and even important plot points and how they affect the overall experience. But I also know how wonderful it is to see a movie like 'Nightcrawler' with absolutely no hype. No spoilers. Nothing. Just walk in clean. With that in mind, I'm going to do a quick mini-review with (hopefully) no spoilers, followed by a longer essay that will be spoileriffic.
The Mini Review
'Nightcrawler' is an outstanding film written and directed by Dan Gilroy, and starring Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, an unusual young man desperate for work. What he finds is the world of nightcrawlers, or stringers. Mostly men who work nights, listening to police scanners, roaring across the desolate streets Los Angeles at high speed in hopes of capturing exclusive, often gory video footage they sell, as freelancers, to local news stations.
'Nightcrawler' is an absolute home run, a dark satirical thriller with excellent performances from all involved, filmed in a way that highlights how beautiful urban landscapes become at night, and executed with an assured hand. It's also a movie, for reasons I'll get to below, that dares to question the audience's own blood-thirst for, and fascination with, carnage and tragedy.
I simply can't recommend 'Nightcrawler' enough to film fans who don't mind darkness, gore, and morally questionable characters. If you want to experience this movie in the best way possible, stop reading right now and go buy it, or rent, this Highly Recommended Blu-ray.
Lou Bloom and the Dark Heart of 'Nightcrawler' (a longer review with spoilers)
Okay, last warning. If you keep reading and come across a spoiler, don't jump down into the comments below, or onto the forum, complaining about how I spoiled the movie. You've been warned. Cool? Cool.
Sometimes I lay awake at night thinking about my forthcoming reviews. For 'Nightcrawler', after a few conversations with friends and colleagues, I was fascinated by the unusual story, and struck by how some felt it broke certain "rules" for what a protagonist is. Some are upset because Lou Bloom doesn't actually change; in fact, he simply becomes a bigger, grander version of what he was all along. And I couldn't wait to explore it.
Then one of my favorite film writers, FilmCrit Hulk, wrote a fantastic essay about 'Nightcrawler' and Why Movies Don't Need Character Arcs. So if you want to read a smart take on this movie, and story crafting in general, go check that out too. I'm only mentioning here because A) he wrote that better than I ever could, and B) there may still be some overlap with what I write here. And, yeah, I know, he writes in all caps. Deal with it.
Caveats out of the way, 'Nightcrawler' blew me out of my cinema seat. It's engrossing and exciting, thrilling and dark, and weird and honest. It's unsetting because, per the filmmakers, this is a success story. This isn't a movie where the bad guy is punished. Our protagonist is the antagonist all wrapped up into one. And he doesn't change. He just grows more powerful and more dangerous as he makes the leap from capturing the news to creating it, laying to waste anyone who dares step in his fucking way.
You see, Lou Bloom is a sociopath, but not your average movie sociopath.
Dan Gilroy purposefully set out to make this character as normal as possible. Jake Gyllenhaal worked tirelessly to make us understand Lou through his performance. We kinda like this guy, even when he's mugging people or stealing things. Why? Because while Lou is just charming enough not to set off immediate red flags, he's also extremely lonely. He represents that period in your life where you have a crap job (or no job at all) and you can't find a girlfriend and it all just sucks. But Lou's a survivor and we respect the hell out of that. Lou pays his rent, even if he has to steal some copper wiring and fencing material to do it.
That's when Lou finds his calling. He becomes a Nightcrawler, a stringer, a lone coyote hunting at night, looking for that next "it bleeds, it leads" scoop. Here too, the audience kinda likes this guy, because we see him struggle. Sure, maybe he uses people like his "intern", Rick (Riz Ahmed), and is becoming increasingly manipulative, but look at this competitive landscape brimming with a-holes like Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), the most successful stringer in LA. Despite these obstacles, we're engrossed by Lou'd pursuit to win in this seedy underworld.
I hate (hate-hate-hate) being reductive in reviews, dividing a finished film into separate elements as if "scripting" and "acting" and "directing" and "cinematography" aren't consistently interconnected and overlapping. Simply put, what Jake Gyllenhaal brings to Dan Gilroy's words is nothing short of stunning. This is a powerhouse of a performance made of very smart, nuanced choices. James Newton Howard's score is evocative, enchanting, and really adds to the sense of "wait, should I like Lou, is this okay?" Cinematographer Robert Elswit paints Los Angeles in a beautiful way, a way normally experience only by locals. 'Nightcrawler' is as much about Lou Bloom as it is about the city itself, a beautiful neon landscape drenched in shadow and danger. Much like Michael Mann's films 'Collateral' and 'Heat', 'Nightcrawler' is simply a great "LA" movie, getting the tone and vibe of this landscape so, so right.
And so we go along with this nuanced character in his beautifully dark word, our minds are rewarded by Lou's wins. But then everything starts to get weird. He openly extorts the beautiful news producer Nina (Rene Russo), exploiting her fear of failure. He seeks vengeance on Joe Loder after Joe belittles Lou repeatedly.
It's about here we realize 'Nightcrawler' what's happening. Lou isn't a hero. He's not even an anti-hero. He's a sociopath, a man who will stop at nothing to achieve what he perceives as success. And like most of these men, that's an ever expanding goal. As the tension starts to rise, lives on the line, pacing accelerating, the movie turns into a whirlwind all of Lou's making. The story of his life, and he's manipulating it all. Playing God. Not caring who has to die, because he loves it.
But don't worry, the Movie Gods are gonna punish Lou, right? You don't get to hurt people with little to no remorse and get away with it, right?
'Nightcrawler' isn't that film.
There's no punishment. Lou gets away with it. It's a success story that ultimately -- and here's the heart of darkness at the center of the whole thing -- turns its attentions on the very audience watching it unfurl. Because you were engaged. You were rooting for Lou (at least for a while). You were hungry for the next insane envelope-pushing sequence. You were clicking on YouTube or turning on the news to see the REAL footage the real string delivered, twisted metal as it went flipping off the road, that cruise ship sinking with people still onboard, that missing airplane vanishing into the Pacific.
We're the ones driving the real-world Lou Blooms. And this film, as it thrills and entertains us, asks us if we're cool with that.
To this day, now a couple months after seeing 'Nightcrawler' for the first time, I can't watch local news. It's all fires and crashes and rapes and murders, all horrible things to the victims having the worst days (last days) of their lives. But we might as well be the Coliseum in Ancient Rome watching Gladiators battle to the death. It's gross, and depressing.
So I don't think 'Nightcrawler' needs to punish Lou (it's perfect in that way); my only small note is that I wonder if we need to see a little more about how, specifically, Lou avoids criminal prosecution after the amount of destruction he causes. That, and "it bleeds, it leads" is a bit of a cliche, or would be in lesser filmmaking hands.
The other thing that struck me while revisiting 'Nightcrawler' is how perfect it would be to double-feature it with 'The Wolf of Wall Street', which I personally feel is not only as good as 'Nightcrawler', but essentially the same film. Different worlds and tones, of course, but they have the same unsettling conclusion where the "bad guys" aren't punished and the audiences is left to ask, "how do I feel about that?"
The crazy part, of course, is that 'Wolf' didn't get the stellar reviews 'Nightcrawler' has earned. To that end, I would argue 'Nightcrawler' succeeds, or is perceived to have succeeded, because it's much more tonally consistent. There are moments of oddness and levity, but the film lives in a very unique, but even tone. It doesn't waver. There's no random twenty-minute slapstick comedy ("Luuuuuuudes!") setpiece.
But honestly, not even kidding here, look at them side-by-side. 'Wolf' is about a despicable man, and the movie refuses to overtly judge him, while asking the audience to look inwards.
We're the ones proving these people up. We're watching Lou's news. We're giving Jordan Belfort all of our retirement money and not demanding justice when he crashes the economy. The only thing 'Wolf' does differently is dare to make Jordan Belfort fun, to show him and his coworkers having a great fucking time, which brings out the morality police who mistakenly assume that "fun" movies equate a movie endorsing and glorifying bad behavior when it's actually (subtextually) doing the opposite.
Sorry for the tangent, but I find it fascinating how similar these productions are, and how much less vitriol was singed upon 'Nightcrawler' which, for its part, never makes Lou's existence look "fun". It's exciting at times, fast-paced, and intoxicating. But Lou Bloom will always be lonely. He'll always be struggling. Because as much as he wants to be human, he's not.
But the tragic part is that we all too often let the sociopaths win.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
'Nightcrawler' debuts on Blu-ray courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The combo pack includes one Blu-ray, one DVD, and a redemption code for UltraViolet or iTunes. Pre-menu trailers include 'Rosewater', 'The Guest', 'Grimm', 'Man With the Iron Fists 2', 'Ouija', and 'Dracula Untold'.
'Nightcrawler' absolutely stuns on Blu-ray, boasting a gorgeous AVC MPEG-4 encode framed in the film's original 2.40:1 widescreen aspect ratio.
While daytime elements were captured on film, 'Nightcrawler' lives and breathes in the dark, using an Arri Alexa digital cinema camera to photograph night sequences. The filmmakers purposely avoided standard Los Angeles filming techniques, such as long lenses, and yellowed out, sun-burnt filters. Instead, 'Nightcrawler' cinematographer Robert Elswit, who is also Paul Thomas Anderson's go-to DP, embraced wide angle lenses to increase depth-of-field, making everything in focus. Neon signs, street lamps, everything in 'Nightcrawler' is bathed with bright colors in the midst of shadows. Skin tones are accurate for various lighting conditions, but I wouldn't necessarily call them natural. That said, bold colors on nighttime faces add another layer of interesting character traits.
My only complaint, though minor, is that the black levels crush sometimes. It's clearly intentional, and what's here is inky and dark and great, but there's some missing shadow detail. That said, for a movie filmed primarily at night, I'm amazed there's no banding or artifacting or even that much noise. This a sharp, resplendent, dynamic visual experience that looks fantastic on HD displays.
If our rating system was a little more delicate, I'd probably rate 'Nightcrawler' at a 4.8 or 4.9-stars, but since we don't have that option. I've rounded up to 5.0. This is a gorgeous movie that really captures Los Angeles in full high definition in a way few of those outside the Southland know well.
'Nightcrawler's evocative 5.1 DTS-HD MA surround mix mirrors the film's pacing and plotting. Meaning, it starts small and nuanced, letting James Newton Howard's guitar-driven musical score slowly pull you into the world. And as the film progresses, as Lou Bloom chases his dreams of being a success, the surround mix becomes more apparent, more dynamic, hurtling listeners through a thrilling final act. With such a range, I found myself trying to decide whether or not this is a 4.5 or 4.0-star track. It clearly represents everything the filmmakers intended, given strong priority to dialog and score elements. And when Lou Bloom stomps his foot on the might Dodge Challenger's gas pedal, the thunder comes alive. But surround activity is generally minimal, save for a few key sequences.
'Nightcrawler' is probably not demo or reference level audio, but despite quieter moments -- which make sense for a film that takes place primarily at night when most of Los Angeles is sleeping -- I really dug this track. Call it a 4.25 or 4.35 star rating which, for our purposes here, I've rounded up to 4.5.
While the film itself, as well as the video and audio presentations, are fantastic, Universal Home Entertainment skimped on bonus materials.
If it Bleeds It Leads: Making Nightcrawler (HD, 5:15). An all too short look at the movie / fairly standard talking heads EPK. It's honestly the only mediocre thing on this disc. Spoiler warning. Do not watch before the film itself.
Feature Commentary with writer/director Dan Gilroy, producer Tony Gilroy, and editor John Gilroy. The Brothers Gilroy team up for an excellent audio commentary, delving into the film's themes, inspirations, and production process. All three are quite eloquent, and this is definitely one of the better commentaries I've heard in a while. For 'Nightcrawler' fans, or aspiring filmmakers (or storytellers), it's Must Listen. My only nitpick is that, being brothers, sometimes it's hard to tell Dan and Tony's voices apart, though context generally clears up any minor confusion. I mention this, not really as a flaw, but more so to highlight how in sync they are, not only as family, but as filmmakers. And it's pretty great to see siblings teaming up this way.
'Nightcrawler' is an outstanding film that's equal parts satire, dark character drama, and thriller, boldly envisioning a world where a lead character's success and failures are driven by humanity's inherent fascination with gory tragedy.
As a Blu-ray, 'Nightcrawler' offers up an excellent video presentation, highlighting a neon-soaked Los Angeles nightscape few outside Southern California know well. The Audio is pretty rock solid too, but the Special Features are severely lacking for a movie this good. That said, the Brothers Gilroy Audio Commentary is a must-listen for fans as well as aspiring filmmakers.
If you're fascinated by morally questionable characters, if you don't mind peeling back layers of humanity's darkness, if you're open to an unsettlingly experience that grips the audience from the first frame and never lets go, 'Nightcrawler' is highly recommended.