Jenna Ipcar on ‘Nightcrawler’


Nightcrawler (2014)
Written & Directed by Dan Gilroy
117 min.

I don’t even know where to start with this one. On so many basic levels, it’s just flat out bad—Nightcrawler is what I would call a full-blooded B movie. How exactly it’s been getting rave reviews, I can’t say I particularly understand. I assume we’re just so desperately hungry for movies that aren’t based off comic books or teen romance novels that most of us will just take whatever we can get.

Yet, as I left the theater, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was something deliberate about the heavy-handed execution of the whole thing.  What if these aspects that seemed like missteps were really just deliberate choices made in order to hammer the point of the film home? After all, there did seem to be a very specific point to Nightcrawler: to shine a light on the dangers of unchecked, amoral startups in an economy saturated with entrepreneurial go-getters.

Lets start with the bad. I found the pacing to be pretty terrible. The build up of tension was incredibly inconsistent throughout the film. For a movie about a creepy guy with no social skills who spends his nights trying to beat the cops to crime scenes in order to get the most graphic footage he can so he can sell it to the highest  bidder, I found the goings-on to be surprisingly bland. The majority of the film is about Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) getting his business off the ground, with little payoff to the any of the interesting plot lines—by the time the movie ended, I felt like it was just warming up. Nightcrawler is sort of an origin flick, and I can’t believe I’m saying this but I almost want them to make it into a trilogy, so they can get to the actual tension.

Then, there’s the ridiculous amount of product placement—parts of this movie genuinely feel like a Dodge commercial. And beyond the car glamour shots, there are also multiple establishing shots of fast food restaurants signs, and some weird bits of dialogue that name drop companies such as Bed Bath & Beyond. Was it such a low budget movie that they needed the money that bad? They could have at least been a bit more tactful about it. We don’t need a 30-second shot lustfully zooming around the hood of the car every half hour.

Then, you have the character of Lou Bloom. He’s kind of ghostly, both in image and in substance—unfortunately, we don’t ever get a full sense of who he is and where he’s come from. It’s not Gyllenhaal’s fault—he does a pretty fantastic job of embodying him. There’s definitely something there, but you never get to see the mask slip. Everything about him is pretty bland, from how he dresses, to his corporate jargon, even down to the laughably uninspired name of his company: Video Production News. And even when under pressure, his true character seems to elude us—there is one weirdly out of place scene in which he smashes a mirror out of frustration, but you can’t help but think the character is doing it more out of cliché than of true emotion.   As he repeatedly tells us himself throughout the film, he’s a hard worker, sets high goals, and is persistent—but that’s about all we get to know. We  never really get any more in-depth information from this character than we would interviewing him for a job.

Then, there’s everyone around him. You get the sense that Lou has some level of intelligence, seeing as he becomes a shrewd and cunning businessman, but the problem is that the people he encounters all come across as total morons—his business intern seems to possess about one brain cell, the head of the local news station never stops to question how he manages to get this gruesome footage, and even the cops somehow never think to question how he obtains it until the end of the film. I mean the entire plot revolves around the idea that the local news channels are paying top dollar for the most graphically violent images so they can run them for morning news. Now, I don’t know about you, but I really can’t remember the last time I saw a woman whose face has been blown off with a shotgun before 7am on network television.  I mean, the guy has raw footage of the entire crime scene, sometimes even has blood on his sleeves, and the most push back we get is the actor who plays Ted on Mad Men making a incredulous face once in a while as he watches the footage at the news station.  If you’ve ever taken an improv class, you’ll hear the advice of “play to the top of your intelligence”—I feel like Nightcrawler really would have benefited from this advice. We want to see the push back, we want to see Lou have to worm his way out, but unfortunately, the movie ever really delivers. As a result, Lou and the rest of the cast come across as flat and unbelievable.

Yet somehow I can’t help but wonder if  this is all just deliberate. A lot of positive reviews of the film seem to compare the film to Network or Taxi Driver, implying the movie is somewhere between a scathing criticism of news media and a character study of a disturbed young man. While the movie definitely has both elements, it doesn’t really do a good enough job on either topic for me to believe that’s what this movie is actually about. However, if you look at the film as an allegory of our current economic climate, suddenly it becomes a darker version of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man, for the 21st century—a study of the psychopathic sort of entrepreneurship our society permits and celebrates.

Cutthroat, self-serving startups that profit at the expense of their clientele  are not only succeeding nowadays, but thriving—take, for instance, some specific cab and apartment rental companies who engage in  underhanded, if not borderline illegal, business practices under the guise of side-stepping ‘the system.’   Depending on where in the political spectrum you fall, you will have varying degrees of emotions on this subject, but for me what Nightcrawler hones in on is the same sort of corruption that made Wolf of Wall Street so abhorrent to me. Unchecked, underhanded, and questionable business practices,  delivering shady material to the hungry open mouths of millions of consumers. “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut” says Nina (Rene Russo) the local news station manager. Nina and Lou realize that the consumer don’t think about where it came from or how it  got there—all they want is the drama of something to fear, to distract them from their normal suburban lives. And they, the predators, take full monetary advantage of it.

So, in the end, I’m sort of stuck. I can’t tell if Nightcrawler is fantastic or just flat-out bad. Perhaps the best thing to take away from the film is the idea that you shouldn’t play the blame game America is so fond of. We love blaming people and things for our problems—if the economy is bad, it’s our politicians, or if the politicians are bad, it’s the media, and if the media is bad, it’s the people’s fault for viewing it, etcetera. I’d argue that Nightcrawler acts like a huge hand, pointing at the Lou Blooms of the world and asking its viewers why we’re all just sitting back, not only letting these assholes get away with obviously illegal practices, but flat out encouraging them to take advantage of us in the process. If the movie’s heavy-handedness makes you want to scream, why doesn’t the overt bullshit in real world corporate America make you do the same?

Or perhaps, maybe Nightcrawler is simply telling you to buy a Dodge Challenger.

Five speed automatic transmission, V6 24-valve VVT engine, starting at MSRP $26,495.

Dodge. Grab life by the horns.

6 thoughts on “Jenna Ipcar on ‘Nightcrawler’”

  1. So we keep meaning to talk to each other about this movie, Jenna, but so many other movies keep getting watched. After reading this, I think we’re in complete agreement about this movie (down to the product placement) except that I was pretty sure right off the bat that it was supposed to hyperbolic in its execution. I think the scene with Lou holding the camera over his head to get the perfect shot while strange angelic music played in the background secured that opinion. I was like, “ok, there’s no way I’m supposed to be taking this at face value.” I can sorta see the Taxi Driver comparison though I hardly think it hits that level of intensity. It might want to but…

    As far as Jake goes, I was never really a fan of him but loved him in this and also felt like he grew into his face a little. That might just be me though.

    My favorite scene was him interviewing the intern and that made me think that it was more about capitalism than it was about the media, what we’re willing to pay for and what we think people should be allowed to get away with in order to start a business. I think the start-up stuff you mentioned is dead on. Even the whole “you tried to get compensated fairly and now you’re dead” scene made me think that as well, instead of just making me think that Lou was a sociopath.

    I liked it overall and was happy to see Renee Russo working again but yeah, I think it could have been polished a little. And I’m not sure I was down with the soundtrack. Sometimes the music made me laugh and I don’t know if that was the point.

    1. Yes!!! I love this comment!

      Yeah, like, I don’t know… I wanted them to at least flesh out Gyllenhaal’s motives– either really drive home the fact that he was evil (which Whiplash did great, while leaving room for interpretation as an allegory) or drive home a strong point about the banality of the creep selfishness startup capitalist mentality.

      1. I thought through some of it that maybe they were keeping him intentionally vague as a character so that we could project a little on to him but I’m not sure it worked and that certainly doesn’t hold up when people compare it to Taxi Driver. Travis Bickle is anything but an empty vessel. Even a character like Patrick Bateman that has the same “reflection of the culture in order to fit in” quality has more depth to him or at least more of a cohesive view of his motivation. Lou just seemed like they were trying to build a sociopath as hard as they could and make him as unlikable as possible and blame us for his existence. But again, I thought Jake did a solid job. I just want the whole trend of weird, vague straight white male characters acting violent and terrible to end. Between this and Drive, I’m ready for more complexity in my men.

        Never thought I’d want that!

        1. YES! Though I Drive I coulda totally done without in general… but you’re right, there’s a real similarity. In this I like the concept but not the execution, in Drive I loved the execution but it lacked any concept.

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