The day before I saw Nightcrawler, I watched Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen's lengthy film essay about how LA is depicted in the movies. (Andersen teaches at CalArts; I never had him as an instructor, but I remember his wild hair and spectral presence earning him the nickname "Beetlejuice".) That film, buried for years because of rights issues, has just been made available on DVD, and it's an engaging watch, especially for Angelenos.
As Nightcrawler is a distinctly Los Angeles story – I can't imagine it taking place anywhere else – it was interesting to watch with Andersen's ideas freshly in my head – such as how, if it's all right to appreciate the narrative elements in a documentary, then it's all right to appreciate the documentary elements in a narrative, i.e. looking past the actors in the foreground and admiring the scenery. Andersen is also a stickler for geographical authenticity, as am I, and while those familiar with LA's streets may notice Nightcrawler's sudden cuts from a street in Koreatown to a street in the Valley – a good 20 minute drive even with zero traffic – this film still accurately captures the eeriness of Los Angeles at night.
Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a bravura yet no-nonsense performance as Lou Bloom, a sociopathic thief who chances upon a highway accident one night and bumps into Joe (Bill Paxton), one of the area's freelance videographers who supply local newscasts with the gory footage of the day. Lou instantly latches on to this vocation, and soon acquires a cheap video camera and police scanner so that he can outrace Joe to the bloodiest crime scenes and make it big in the world of local news. Ethics, needless to say, never get in the way for Lou Bloom.
Nightcrawler is both a character study – Gyllenhaal dropped some 30-40 pounds to give Lou an especially haunted edge, with glaring eyes sunken in their sockets (writer/director Gilroy compared Lou to a starving coyote descending from the Hollywood hills at night to scavenge) – as well as an expose of the ugly truth behind the scenes of your local nightly news. (A brilliant sequence, in which a news producer played by Rene Russo coaches the anchorpeople to narrate their way through especially gruesome footage from Lou, feels chillingly real.) Even though we've been told repeatedly that online journalism has supplanted traditional TV news, the film still feels relevant.
My only qualms, without giving anything away, lie with the somewhat flat epilogue, which is a letdown after the truly suspenseful third act. Not that I have any better ideas of how to wrap up the story. But in any event, it certainly doesn't ruin the movie. I'd recommend Nightcrawler to anyone who appreciates dark and cynical storytelling. It may not be a classic, but it is entertaining – at times thrillingly so – and definitely thought-provoking.