Bill Paxton Dan Gilroy

Nightcrawler Review: Thematic Confusion Keeps it from Greatness

Friday, November 07, 2014 Rob Samuelson


Director: Dan Gilroy
Writer: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton
In Nightcrawler, spectacular performances, pacing, cinematography, and editing combine for a thrilling, satirical indictment of television news. Unfortunately, this mastery of the cinematic canvas serves a theme that is too cynical and confused about how that industry works to be true. It pushes false ideas about the causes of modern television news' proclivities toward violence and sensationalism, only to succumb to the same inclination by using the flashiest tools in the filmmaking box to focus on surface level ideas.
Gyllenhaal is tremendous as the freelance videographer Lou, a sociopath with a can-do attitude, long, greasy hair, and a squirrelly frame that fits his life as a thief. Once he comes across Rene Russo's TV news producer, he finally finds himself a steady gig videotaping the most gruesome crime news in Los Angeles. Writer-director Dan Gilroy shoots the film in a way that is both scuzzy and shiny, perhaps because of his mixed use of both film and digital cameras for different settings and times. He paces Nightcrawler meticulously, with each scene providing an emphatic push to the next, never once stopping as the stakes grow and grow.

Gyllenhaal is a force of nature, one of the year's best characters, but unfortunately he's a false pawn in Gilroy's attempt to portray the media as craven fear mongers only ever in search of a buck -- he goes so far as to suggest they create the violence to get more visceral (re: moneymaking) stories. Everyone with a sense of agency in the film, like Russo and Gyllenhaal, is only out for themselves, desperate to preserve and expand what they have, manipulating each other and their television audience to get everything they want. They brush away suggestions that what they're doing is ethically wrong, and conspire to do the unethical thing at every turn, almost as a form of spite. This in itself suggests Gilroy believes the “good” people in TV journalism – portrayed here by Mad Men's Kevin Rahm – those concerned with doing the right and fair thing for subjects and victims, aren't important to news creation. They get pushed aside, treated as silly nuisances and buzzkills. They are soon kept out of meetings about how to maximize the impact of the violence for ratings, incentivizing the less scrupulous – hello, Lou – to go hog wild in first staging, and later orchestrating the grand finale.

It's a shame Gilroy cares so much about this aspect, which is possibly true in some cases across the TV news landscape, but it overlooks what is a simpler, and much more widespread, truth about broadcast news: All this "if it bleeds, it leads" stuff (as a person with a journalism degree, I'm pleading with you, Hollywood, to stop using this phrase when discussing journalism) is easy. People don't need to centrally process it. They get it, and they get it quickly. It's harder to do the stuff Lou says only takes up 22 seconds of an average broadcast, like covering the complicated worlds of public policy, business deals, and the like. Nuance is hard in an immediate medium like TV, and these news organizations are, I'd argue, lazier than they are malicious. That's a real outrage, one with basis in fact, unlike the false theme of the media's orchestration of violence Gilroy finds more interesting.
And it's disappointing Gilroy and Nightcrawler don't go for the media's throat on the subject of laziness. It diminishes the film's power as satire. Because for satire to work, it needs to be about a real problem. That's why the satirical moments of recent films like The Wolf of Wall Street and Gone Girl work so well. We recognize what they are doing. We're supposed to be outraged by Jordan Belfort going through life like he owns everyone, defrauding thousands, and essentially getting away with it and moving to a career where his horrendous efforts are applauded. We see the Nancy Grace-style host in Gone Girl's recreant attempts to reframe the story for her ratings' purposes multiple times, always relying on gut feelings in lieu of actual facts, and we understand it because it happens in cable news all the time. There is proof of these things in reality, and for all the heightened absurdities of Martin Scorsese's and David Fincher's films, they run in the same circles as truth. Nightcrawler's satire is more guesswork, cynically assuming this is what happens without supporting evidence in real life. It is conspiratorial thinking, probably giving the media too much credit for their abilities to shape stories to their will rather than being able to exploit what they come across as lazily as possible.

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