Not the X-Men’s Nightcrawler, though he certainly is worth talking about as well. No, this is Nightcrawler, a film featuring debut director Dan Gilroy and an eerily thin Jake Gyllenhaal. It is a tense, forcefully kinetic, and brooding yet energetic movie that you should undoubtedly see, but it has a supremely interesting concept at its center.
Before we get to that, you should know what Nightcrawler actually is about. Gyllenhaal starts out more or less as a thief. Our introduction to his character Louis Bloom is him stealing from a construction site, getting caught, and then attacking the unfortunately vigilant guard before stealing his watch. Oh, and then he sells material from the site for profit.
He then comes across a foreign situation: freelance video journalism in Los Angeles. They’re filming a car crash and selling that footage later to a news station. He wants to do the same, so he steals a bike to get money for a camcorder and radio scanner and hires an assistant in the form of a man almost unreasonably desperate for cash. The rest of the film is his descent into madness and our witnessing his fall.
Except it’s not. There’s something far more fascinating at the very base of this film concerning little ol’ Louis Bloom than this trite concept. We’ve already seen that story many times over. Sometimes in spectacular form like with Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia where we get to watch Al Pacino deftly, expertly, and recklessly go from composed homicide detective to a jumbled mess of guilt and insanity. And then sometimes you get The Number 23.
The point is we’re already familiar with that train ride down to Crazytown, which is what makes Nightcrawler so intriguing. On some fundamental level, it’s about the contrast between creation and discovery. Usually applied to a metaphysical discussion of mathematics, here we have human minds. Whereas you watch Pacino and Jim Carrey create their own madness, Nightcrawler is about the other side of that philosophical coin.
Instead, Louis is mad from the beginning and we simply (and thrillingly) discover it. It’s the small touches that do it. From the outset, we don’t see anything overtly crazy. Sure he steals to make a living, but that doesn’t necessarily make him insane. But when he steals that guard’s watch after he subdues him, it makes us uneasy. Not to any notable threshold, just that it was an extra shitty move to pull after assaulting the guy.
Then, at the scrapyard, Louis asks for a job while fencing his stolen materials. Describing himself, he says he’s motivated, driven. It’s a simple statement, but it feels too forward. As if it was more of a threat than a boast. And when he repeats it later on when trying to pull a job out of Nina, the station manager he sells his footage to, with an even more pressing force behind his words. This is the sort of person you slowly back away from outside a 7-Eleven.
Those are just little signs, though. They’re the little flags they throw down around a dig site when archaeologists think they’ve found a fossil. That turning point, as it were, of when he sees the freelance videographers covering the car crash and deciding he wants to do the same thing? That’s when we see the first hint of bone on the dig. We’ve discovered the madness.
The rest of the film plays on that very simple concept of discovery and what makes it compelling. We all want to see what’s under the dirt, no matter how hideous or grotesque that thing is that we’ve found. And in Louis’ case, it is revolting. We see absolute sociopathy. We see, to varying degrees, unchecked psychosis. We see a monster, but one limb—one claw—at a time.
And by the end, we see the whole thing. That’s where Nightcrawler excels. We see precisely the most affecting parts of Louis, the pieces that make us realize he wasn’t a thing created by the urgency of journalistic deadlines or competition or even voyeurism. He was crazy all along, and we happened to discover it.