Nightcrawler, the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy, has a strong kinship with Sidney Lumet’s Network. Both take a satirical view of broadcast journalism, portraying the profession as a cold-blooded environment where sensationalism takes center stage. If there is one difference that separates the newer film from its 1976 predecessor, though, it is that the former possesses none of the latter’s biting wit. Nightcrawler is incredibly heavy-handed with its message, and the satirical dialogue is far from profound.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a sociopath determined to find career success. While driving one evening, he comes across a traffic accident that is being filmed by a pair of freelance crime journalists (one of whom is played by Bill Paxton). Bloom is immediately intrigued by the profession and soon purchases his own camera. He is fearless as a videographer, going so far as to break into crime scenes in order to record the best footage. Though his tactics are completely unethical, he is able to ingratiate himself with a struggling network director (Rene Russo), who hopes his graphic videos will raise her network’s ratings.
It is Nightcrawler’s ham-fisted screenplay that ultimately causes it to fail. Though Paddy Chayefsky was certainly blunt with Network’s message, he more than made up for it with his sharp-tongued dialogue. Gilroy’s script, on the other hand, has little working in its favor. In one of the movie’s most egregious moments, Bloom films the aftermath of an accident that severely injured Paxton’s character. When Bloom’s assistant suggests that it may not be appropriate to record their injured colleague, Bloom replies, “he’s not a colleague anymore. He’s a sale.”
As the unstable protagonist, Gyllenhaal also forgoes subtlety in favor of a Hollywood approach to mental illness. There is little resembling a human in his portrayal of Lou Bloom. He simply adopts a series of peculiar tics, such as a breathless monotonic way of talking and a habit of laughing insanely to himself. There is nothing transformative about his performance. He never becomes his character. He is simply Jake Gyllenhaal with an underfed appearance and slightly longer hair. His performance, though, is just one of the many shallow aspects of Nightcrawler. Everything the film has to say can be easily gleaned from the surface, and it has little insight to offer viewers about the current state of the media.
– Jacob Carter