Both predator and prey cruise the asphalt corridors of Los Angeles during the wee morning hours. A collision between the two is inevitable, and it's always been this way. Nightcrawler opens with a drowsy tour of their eerie playground; neon signs, dimly lit parks, freeway construction zones and vacant boulevards all feel lived in yet surreal, thanks to great cinematographer Robert Elswit's textured visuals. An empty billboard overlooks the city, symbolizing not only a shift in media outreach but also the deserted sense of morality to follow.
Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) thrives in the shadows. He's a low-level thief posing as a big-deal entrepreneur, a pint-sized sociopath aching for the chance to pull himself up by his bootstraps. At the beginning of director Dan Gilroy's striking debut film, Louis has yet to find a true calling in life, despite negotiating his way into multiple lines of work. We see him alone on a stretch of railway track, stealing copper wiring and chain-link fencing. When approached by a security guard, he proves his serpent-like ability to strike when least expected, a fact that continues to linger throughout the film's seedy proceedings.
One innocuous evening, Louis happens upon the scene of a fiery car crash and witnesses the drama being documented by a "nightcrawler" named Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). The film's title refers to the scabby video freelancers who scour the city in hopes of documenting accidents and crime scenes in order to sell the salacious material to blood-hungry news stations. Louis is instantly hooked; he dedicates all of his time to learning the trade and the technology, then ventures back out into the night, hoping to capture some carnage on camera.
Nightcrawler intricately details Louis' descent into the regional media profession, a compromised and scaly trade desperately seeking the kind of shocking material that will ensure its relevance for one more 24-hour cycle. He develops a relationship with Nina (Rene Russo), the news director of a local affiliate who's willing to pay top dollar for the most invasive and heinous imagery. Gilroy expedites Louis' rise up the food chain through a gripping montage of opportunistic actions and inhuman deviancy. It's like watching a vulture find a carcass never devoid of rotting meat.
Eventually, Louis and his dim-witted associate Rick (Riz Ahmed) begin blurring the lines between documenter and participant. Here, Nightcrawler establishes a discourse about the manipulation of images and the aesthetic construction of "reality." In this era of LiveLeak and instant access, such a conversation examines what it means to get closer and closer to videotaped trauma, its raw meaning deformed for profit. Louis, a willfully brazen scavenger, has no qualms about mastering this process for his own gain.
As the film careens toward insanity, Gyllenhaal's performance grows increasingly reptilian and audacious. The glee he experiences at witnessing atrocities and then tampering with the evidence is sickening but completely expected from a man whose bug eyes see every angle. Double talk spews out of his mouth at a rapid clip, while his gangly frame fits nicely into corners of dark spaces to avoid detection. Even though Louis is forthright about his moral sleaze, you'll never truly understand the depths of his depravity until it's too late.
Nightcrawler —which, fittingly, opens on Friday, Oct. 31—is a story about the horrors of information overload. The public's voraciousness for aesthetics, images and sound drives Louis and his ilk to create bogus self-fulfilling prophecies about their role as capitalistic warriors. What Gilroy gets right is that the news has become so fast that it becomes entangled with the events being documented. There's no other way to explain Louis, a new breed of vampire who lives and feeds by night but can also withstand the sun.