Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler
What does it mean to leave your home, your apartment, to enter your vehicle and drive? Is it a transfer of power, a jolt of control as key strikes ignition and sends fuel to the engine, and the car goes and speeds and slows and does as it is bid? Driving is a willful action, but it often serves as the vehicle for another deed beyond; it is the access, the pilgrimage. Driving films push viewers to ask: is location so holy, so essential for a film? They present filmmakers with the challenge of designing a space between, lighting it, and controlling the action which occurs along the way. In driving, the actor is loosed from the outside world, one which cannot shy or wallow in a spotlight, but merely exists, streaks by, and glowers in its insistent presence. A relationship and a rhythm: the road, the vehicle, the driver. “Gliding along an endless valley,” to which this road, and all roads lead, “a dream of some imagined Eden” (Nightcrawler screenplay).
It is hard not to connect Nightcrawler, director Dan Gilroy’s first film, to the spree of driving films in recent years, films which count the insular space of the car as important as that of the home. Vehicles give way to action, and seem to channel and accomplish the cinematic question: what does a character desire? Nebraska (2013) offers a grassland journey toward a fictitious jackpot, while the appropriately-titled Drive (2011, reviewed by Charles Andrews in The Cresset, Lent 2012) is propelled by a tense meditation on violence. Or maybe the vehicle is a place of vulnerability, the site of a life’s deterioration as Tom Hardy in Locke (2013) drives on and on amidst mocking headlights and the solitude of his bluetooth phone conversations.
Nightcrawler, Gilroy’s first film, is a poignant survey not of film noir’s typical violence, but of the aftermath and the dissemination of that violence. Gilroy, at fifty-five, is an old hand at the Hollywood screenwriting scene and, as an LA native, knows the city well. The over seventy-seven locations he filmed—many in-between or no-places, whether roadsides, freeways, junkyards, or dead apartment buildings—offer a strong sense of the sordid whole of Los Angeles. The city is not composed merely of bright, palm tree-lined boulevards, nor conversely of smoky nightclubs and muggy alleyways, but is a vast, sprawling city whose veins are freeways, lit up at night like fiber optics. In one instance, a shot reveals scores of antennae rising over the city as the sun broaches the crest of the mountains. Meticulous editing layers in the static of radio broadcasts bouncing from antennae to antennae, to morning news shows rioting over each other in a hyper-saturated frenzy. News anchors float by in bright-hued ties and blouses, high definition hairstyles, and turn amorphous in the ceaseless flicking from channel to channel. It’s an overload, a pulsing of parallel strains, the same robberies, murders, and break-ins from different mouths, different channels.
Nightcrawler opens with barren ground and night sky, a billboard looming before the glow of a freeway-cut Los Angeles. A silhouette against the city lights slices through chain-link fencing with a bolt cutter, then scurries toward its car as high beams and a security guard challenge it. “I’m lost,” we hear the figure speak, washed pale in the headlights of the other vehicle. The exchange continues, the camera focuses on the guard’s glinting watch, and the two figures are suddenly down. A scuffle ensues, and the shot wipes to the same figure driving through the desert valley, face illumined by streetlights and grinning at the new watch adorning his wrist.
So we meet Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), gliding his way through LA nightscapes of noir proportion. Except, without the romance: Lou’s eyes are downturned; he is pensive with a lip-pursed mediocrity. This is neo-noir: heavier, more confrontational, letting the blood splatter onto the camera lens. Lou is a man on the periphery of society and, as branded by the scrapyard owner to whom he sells the chain-link fence and various manhole covers, a thief. But he drives—and is driven—toward his own Eden.
From a distance, flashing lights signal an accident, a highway obstruction. Lou drives closer, pulls over on impulse and is drawn to the scene: a woman pulled from her burning car by emergency personnel. But the scene is already staked out, captured by a freelance team of cameramen. “We’re first!” yells one, to which another replies “Got a view in the car!” and you realize that they are not there to report so much as to capture an elusive moment. Lou is galvanized.
If there is a track upon which this film is set, it is forward, only forward. Obsessed with climbing the career ladder, Lou is propelled by little more than his own assertiveness, his unwillingness to back down. He is unassuming and sincere, but beneath the surface of this character there is a creeping feeling of instability. Gilroy’s script describes him as “‘pure primal id.” Instinctive yes, but with a touch of savoir faire, an ability to charm via his innocent façade, his bargaining, and smiles of assurance. The disconnect between character appearance and inner motivation is only heightened by the film’s musical cues. The soundtrack wavers, a mounting orchestral drift that is often struck with a quick editing cut like a rock through rippling water. A cellphone beeps—static—then skittering feedback as if held too close to a speaker. These are, in truth, cues from within Lou’s head, what he hears as he dramatizes the world outside his mind, a mind that is “disconnected... feral,” wavering between misanthropy and a fierce drive.
Back at the scrapyard, Lou bargains with the wary owner for a better price, as the moon inches over the city, gleaming in its pale wash. Rebuffed, Lou states that he will accept the original offer if it helps establish a “business relationship.” It is almost absurd, talking business with a shady broker, and this taste for bargaining becomes one of his greatest tools as the film progresses. It secures him his first camcorder and police scanner off a pilfered road bike and then his first deal with a news station selling footage. Invigorated by his first video capture, Lou heads to KWLA-TV, the channel on which he saw coverage of the first accident (and the lowest-rated station in the area). There he gets his first tips from Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the commander of the news studio, as she dictates instructions and overrules the skeptical reactions of the news staff. Another forward-driven character, for whom regrets might never be acknowledged, who paces along with the sad march of a low-end cable news station. She brushes him off—“the shot’s all grainy,” or “get a close-up”—but they finally strike a deal. As she looks him over, she shares: “we find our viewers are more interested in urban crime sweeping into the suburbs.”
Right. Check. So Lou masters the police radio codes online and hires a partner, Rick (Riz Ahmed), to assist with filming and navigation. Rick is a sad hustler, without even a covert talent; he responds to situations with the slow incredulity of a washout. But he is important for Lou as a malleable partner, a contrast for Lou’s successes and a spectator for his sense of grandeur. Together, they form an unlikely duo; the one fearless and pushy, and the other timid, unwilling. They press on with the venture, learning which calls might prove fruitful and competing with other stringers for the exclusive shot. Yet even as Lou works his way up in the industry, purchasing a new, scarlet-hued Dodge Challenger and high-quality video equipment, Rick still sits passenger-side, slightly incredulous, and mostly along for the ride. He’s a double for us, the audience; we too are sitting shotgun, hearing Lou’s reprimand of “Seat belt. Seat belt!” as he pumps the accelerator and glides onto a lamplit LA freeway. It’s truly breathless.
After the film, I couldn’t help but hear the theater crowd murmur, “He’s a sociopath. The blood is clearly on his hands.” But this is the easy critique, the kind of artificial distance that makes the film, and Lou as a character, easy to digest. Certainly he looks like a psychopath—hollow-cheeked (Gyllanhal lost twenty pounds for the role) with a bleakness unsoftened by his tireless momentum. But it is how he deliberates and acts on the job that most obscures his humanity. It’s a kind of envisioning on one part, a daydream, and a kind of deliberation on the other. This is clearly the mark of a manipulator, weighing the scales of power in each situation as if to inquire, “What is allowed?” Every good manipulator knows, of course, that the ultimate tool of manipulation is understanding and using currents of power, pushing things to the fulfilment of his desire so that it is hardly realized as it is happening.
There’s hardly anything to uncover from Lou’s personal life; his apartment is populated with little more than a weedy plant, a couple of milk crates, and a blocky computer. On the job though, Lou’s bloodshot eyes press onto the viewfinder as he circles in for a shot. Skulking, peering, like a wolf to a carcass, his eyes reflect the flames or blood of the wreckage, translated through lens and mirror to a thousand television screens. Then, without a pause, snapping shut the monitor, he skids away to the low buzz of the police scanner. As Susan Sontag, the seminal writer on violence and imagery reminds in her 1977 essays On Photography, there is an implicit aggression in the very use of a camera: “like a car, a camera is sold as a predatory weapon—one that’s as automated as possible, ready to spring... it’s as simple as turning the ignition key or pulling the trigger.” Lou’s camcorder is more dangerous than he can imagine, a vehicle to his own dissociation from reality as he sees his clip playing on television: “It looks so real!”
So how exactly does the camcorder—and its monitor, the television—change how we view violence? Of course, there is a certain distance removed, a space of analysis and reflection in a book or newspaper culled away by the immediacy of television news or the “breaking” tweet. Anesthetized by repeated doses of violence, we no longer recoil as we might have used to, but frown and mutter at the sickness of the world. This anesthetization is central to Gilroy’s use of Lou. What complicates our understanding of him is the lurking question of whether the episodes of violence he has experienced have dulled (or stifled) his empathy or whether he is already a product of our culture, deadened to the macabre.
Driving movies speak to us out of the romantic instinct of 1970s cop thrillers. The groovy soundtracks and turtleneck-jacket combos may be gone, but the somber, unemotive driver remains. Lou is no Steve McQueen; that kind of laconic, self-possessed coolness is too easy for neo-noir, in which characters thrive in their dark complexities. Lou is alone, emotionless, perhaps socially maladjusted. Society falls away like cool metal scaffolding before the driver and his car. Neon punctuates a murky street, yet neon is rendered here with ambulance lights, the dying tone of sirens, and the acrid taste of smoke. There’s a gritty realism here that never appeared behind the smoke of noir. It drips into the camera’s frame with the blood of victims, not black and white but high definition, and not a detail is missed.
But there is a kind of absurdity, too, one which softens the utter devastation of the final deadly scene and exposes the news anchors for their affectation. News becomes a kind of theater in which the truth, the captured experience, is interpreted and framed by the camcorder and assembled into a narrative. This is one of the cruxes of the film, the way in which Lou physically alters scenes and then reframes them to mirror a better shot (read: a more horrific narrative). It is a deliberate action which steps so far beyond our willingness as normal humans that we can’t help but feel alienated, disgusted by him. The only people who appreciate, or can look past it are Nina and the news anchors, desperate to retain their jobs, desperate to continue feeding us—the public audience—the corrupted soma we unthinkingly desire: fear, through scenes of violence, creeping into our hyper-managed lives. Through this veneer, Nightcrawler implores us for self-analysis, for a realization and shock out of our day-to-day, out of the distracted state of screen-viewing in which we are too often numbed to violence, and transfixed by its aftermath.
Gregory Maher is a writer who lives in Chicago. He covers art and architecture for KNSTRCT Magazine, and contributes to The Seen contemporary art magazine.