Horror is evolving as a genre. Although your local multiplex is still peppered with the usual contenders, look a bit closer at the schedule and you’ll find the latest drama, thriller, or crime offering is closer to horror than you might expect. In this bi-weekly series, Joey Keogh presents a film not generally classified as horror and argues why it exhibits the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror.
The biggest Oscar snub of 2015 wasn’t The Lego Movie, as everyone claimed, it was Nightcrawler, a true-crime thriller in which Jake Gyllenhaal shocks in his most challenging role to date (aside from when he played two parts in the same film, of course) and for which he was utterly and unfairly ignored by The Academy. Credence must also be given to the hugely underrated Rene Russo, his sparring partner in the form of tough-as-nails TV news show-runner Nina who, considering the lame turnout in this year’s Best Supporting Actress category, should’ve been a shoo-in herself.
A nightcrawler is the term used to describe news-hounds who stalk late-night crime scenes for the most interesting, and often graphic, footage to sell to TV stations in the morning. Over the course of writer-director Dan Gilroy‘s no-holds-barred look at an otherwise unknown, even quite underground, profession we follow Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) as he learns exactly what it means to be a nightcrawler; purchasing a camera, memorising police codes, editing and submitting footage and, eventually, acquiring his very own team.
Gilroy’s whip-smart script earned him a Best Original Screenplay nod (the gong went to Birdman) but Nightcrawler barely made a ripple otherwise, both on the awards circuit and, curiously, with horror fans, who should’ve eaten it up given the subject matter (it managed to do rather well at the box office, comparatively speaking). This may be thanks, in part, to a trailer which set Bloom up as a bit of a schmuck, a loser who was desperate to impress and to succeed in spite of being completely devoid of talent.
Any worries about whether Nightcrawler‘s anti-hero is a poor, struggling sad sack are immediately eradicated in the film’s tight opening sequence, during which he robs a nosy security guard of his watch, confidently uses modern business speak to try to sway an uninterested possible employer and laughs when he is knocked back after blatantly selling stolen goods. It’s the perfect setup for a character who only gets worse from there, a character who we never quite get to know in spite of spending nearly two hours in his company.
Set almost entirely at night, Nightcrawler is, broadly speaking, a sharp satire of our media-soaked, 24/7 news landscape. Once he learns what a nightcrawler actually is, Bloom will do everything in his power to be the best of the best, from getting rid of his competitors (including a terrifically nasty Bill Paxton), to putting his right hand man in the line of fire, and often disrupting crime scenes before the police arrive, just to make sure he gets his footage. Bloom crosses lines before establishing where they are, and he’s always one step ahead. Watch how he stares confidently into a CCTV camera, or holds perfect eye contact with an investigating detective, safe in the knowledge that, although she may have his number, there’s nothing she can really to do stop him.
Much of Bloom’s creepy presence can be attributed to his startling appearance. According to Gilroy, it was Gyllenhaal’s decision to drop almost thirty pounds to play him, and to tie his hair up into a little topknot (now ludicrously popular with discerning males across the globe, thanks to one Conor Mc Gregor) whenever he’s doing something particularly devious. Turning one of the most eligible bachelors in the world into a horrible, creepy little cockroach is quite the triumph and Gyllenhaal is to be commended for fully committing to Bloom’s hollow-eyed, skeletal, almost ghost-like presence.
As with Franck Khalfoun‘s accomplished Maniac, in Nightcrawler Los Angeles features as a character itself. Bloom even notes to Nina at one point that the backdrop of the city, shown in news broadcasts, looks “so real” on television. It’s a throwaway comment that allows a fleeting glimpse into his fractured psyche. Also, much like Maniac, a throbbing, synth-heavy score undercuts the action, humming and swelling to throw us off base, as though we should be empathizing with Bloom’s struggle.
The question hanging over Nightcrawler is, who is Lou Bloom? Where the hell did he come from? In his opening monologue, he mentions he’s the product of a generation who expects everything to be handed to them, but that he doesn’t subscribe to this idea. Everything he does is incredibly studied, from the way he steals from people, to how he watches TV or waters his plants. Most of what is gleaned about the character is through his lengthy speeches, mostly aimed at Nina, about news, business and the nature of employment. Bloom is ambitious, smart, persistent, resourceful but he is ultimately a sociopath and the trick Nightcrawler plays on us is suggesting that maybe we should empathise with him.
He has absolutely no regard for human life, pulling an injured, unconscious man into the road so he can get the shot and disposing of people as though they’re totally worthless. The flick is a study of the horror of human nature, and every character could arguably be considered inherently evil. In fact, the one decent fellow is shouted down at every turn, and although he has a point about how far things are being pushed, he eventually succumbs because he doesn’t have a choice. The bravest thing about Nightcrawler, as a result, is its insistence that good does not triumph over evil.
There are two, key sequences that stake a serious claim for Nightcrawler as a horror film. The first is a night-time trawl through a house in which a family has just been ruthlessly gunned down mid-dinner. Bloom, camera in hand, strolls through, unmoved, meticulously capturing everything, while his long-suffering cohort Rick (Riz Ahmed) keeps a lookout. The sequence is impressively gory, especially for a mainstream film, but what comes after it is even worse as Nina and her news crew pick through the footage, practically salivating as they do so, and she figures out how best to sell it throughout the coming day’s shows.
The second sequence of note apparently drew stunned gasps and nervous laughter from the assembled audience, when the flick first screened at TIFF–and for good reason. Weirdly, it takes place in, of all places, a Mexican restaurant as Nina, coerced into accompanying Lou to dinner, confidently rebuffs his advances only to find he’s really the one in control and her only choice is to either give in to him, or lose his highly sought-after footage, and her job, as a result.
Gilroy has spoken at length about how much time and effort went into writing this particular scene–which he argues is so powerful because it reveals how terrifying people can be–and it shows that onscreen. The power shift is shocking and, although Bloom’s mental instability has been hinted at throughout the picture, it’s in this exchange that he seems truly unhinged. Even the way it’s framed–tight, almost claustrophobic, like they’re the only two people in the restaurant–is enough to make your skin crawl. To his credit, Gyllenhaal has since claimed it was his favourite scene to film while Russo felt it was a trip too, as Nina essentially sells her soul to Bloom over the course of the meal (we later see her telling the news team that he’s inspiring all of them to “reach a little higher”).
Considering it comes to us courtesy of the man who penned scripts for big-budget blockbusters such as Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy, Nightcrawler is an incredibly assured, remarkably brave directorial debut from Dan Gilroy. He clearly has a lot to say about the nature of news media, particularly the higher interest in crimes against richer, whiter folk and the reliance on shock tactics to achieve a bigger viewership. Utilising a terrific cast, his own smart, well-considered script and an anti-hero whom it’s impossible not to get sucked in by, he manages to create a world that is both recognizable and utterly nightmarish.
At the risk of unintentionally referencing another L.A.-set, driving-heavy film, Nightcrawler is a fast and furious, true crime story that exposes the true horror of human nature. Gilroy isn’t afraid to shatter our illusions of what human beings are capable of, with an ice-cold ending that ensures there is absolutely no grey area. As he has explained, the hero is the villain, which, as horror fans, in particular, just makes it more fun. In fact, Paxton’s character says it best early on; if it bleeds, it leads.
Nightcrawler is on DVD and Blu-ray now.