As recent events in Baltimore have made painfully clear, the old network news axioms: “If it bleeds, it leads” and “If it burns, it earns”, aren’t just gentle suggestions from the corporate overlords in the front office anymore, but, for the most part, the law of the land in television news. And while it has become fashionable to pretend that we as viewers are somehow above it all and would rather get our news from traditional print media, the Internet or even filtered through the fractured lens of The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the fact remains that when screaming, flaming chaos is unfolding on our viewing screen of choice, we rarely change the channel straight away.
Though some feel that this makes us complicit in supporting everything that is wrong with television news, others theorize that the real problem is that somewhere, deep in the caveman core of our humanity, we just like to watch things burn.
That duality in our genetic code is at the core of writer/director Dan Gilroy’s gritty, Oscar-nominated screenplay for his film Nightcrawler. At once a pitch-black satire of the lurid, blood-splattered drama that passes for nightly news in Los Angeles and a searing indictment of the dark side of the American dream in the internet age – where viral videos make headlines and any weirdo with an iPhone can have his fifteen minutes of fame – Nightcrawler is also one hell of a ride.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Louis Bloom, a hollow-eyed grifter existing on the fringes of Los Angeles until he stumbles upon work as a stinger (aka freelance) cameraman. Discovering that local news stations pay handsomely for gory car accident and crime scene footage, Bloom arms himself with a police scanner and a video camera and reinvents himself as a gritty “first responder” of sorts. Obsessed with making a name for himself in the industry, Bloom quickly catches the eye of cynical nightly news producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo) whose bloodlust for ratings and power rivals his own. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Most of this year’s award season buzz centered around Gyllenhaal’s feral, animalistic performance – not to mention his eerie make-up and that sinewy, wolf-like grin! – but if you ask me, it’s Russo’s performance that really grounds and humanizes Nightcrawler.
Projecting power, drive and smoky-eyed street savvy one minute, and the subtle desperation of a fading beauty clinging to her former glories in a changing television landscape the next, Russo is nothing short of astounding. Her scenes with Gyllenhaal practically crackle and hum with energy, but the scene that really stands out is the more muted one the two share at a cramped booth in a gloomy Mexican restaurant in the third act. Dark, disturbing and unnerving to the extreme, Russo and Gyllenhaal’s epic, six-minute-long verbal power play is already the stuff of legend.
Here again, credit goes to writer/director Dan Gilroy’s award-winning work behind the camera. Injecting Nightcrawler with a raw, kinetic and often darkly funny energy, Gilroy manages to both abide by and completely disregard the so-called “rules” of the genre and the end result is breathtaking. That said, Nightcrawler is also extremely graphic in spots, so, if you’re seated next to kids or the otherwise faint of heart, you may want to adjust your seat-back IFE screen accordingly. Or, you know, just tell them you’re watching the news.
Open Road Films’ Nightcrawler is playing on select American Airlines, Air New Zealand and Air France flights throughout the month and is also available for streaming at Google Play and VUDU.