What is television? It’s a surprisingly big question. There’s the technological aspect, moving from the days of rabbit ears through to high definition. There’s the programming and cultural aspect, at one point a monoculture, now increasingly splintered with people watching any number of shows in all sorts of formats.
Technology, programming, and culture have all been crucial to putting television at the forefront of American society. Dan Gilroy’s 2014 movie Nightcrawler looks at all these factors, but with an understanding that television is fundamentally a business first.
Nightcrawler is the story of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a drifter who moves through Los Angeles without any rhyme or reason. Before the audience meets Lou, they see a series of images showing a lifeless city. There’s machinery, signs, and streets, but Gilroy keeps his distance from anything that resembles a human being.
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Into this bleak picture comes Lou, a gaunt and haunting figure. He’s hanging around where he isn’t supposed to be, cutting through fences to sneak into a construction site. When a security guard starts asking questions, Lou attacks him and steals material to sell to a scrapyard.
When stealing doesn’t work out, Lou stumbles upon his next line of work: Capturing late night accidents and violence on camera, and selling his footage to local news stations for their morning broadcast. There’s plenty of competition, other crews rushing around the city in vans with fancy cameras. Lou starts small, stealing a bike to sell for a camcorder and a police scanner. But what he lacks in funds he makes up for hunger. He’s willing to get as close to the carnage as he can get, driving like a lunatic to beat other crews to the scene.
With a few sales under his belt he seeks out his first employee, Rick (Riz Ahmed) and attempts a romantic relationship with Nina (Rene Russo), his contact at the TV station where he exclusively sells. Both Rick and Nina blanche at Lou’s behavior. He constantly tries to pay Rick less and threatens to take his footage to other studios if Nina doesn’t sleep with him. They both bend to his will.
Lou’s rise is presented as a classic Americana success story in a world that’s been reduced to transactions, his rise in the sleazy side of media continuing despite of — or perhaps because of — his intensity. Talking to IndieWire, Gilroy described Gyllenhaal's character as “a nocturnal animal that comes down out of the hills at night to feed. Jake would call him a coyote. That’s sort of the symbolic animal; that’s why he lost all the weight because coyotes are always hungry.” And to Film Comment, Gilroy said Lou is “so earnest, he’s like WALL*E running around, looking for work to do.”
Lou, the feral coyote-esque WALL*E who succeeds in small business, is proudly self-taught, describing to Nina the work he’s done researching the television industry in detail. He demands respect, and can’t tolerate anyone second-guessing his work. His drive to succeed sees him taking drastic measures to stop his competition, as well as to keep raising the stakes of his own recordings.
He focuses on upscale addresses, having learned from Nina that morning news viewers don’t care about crime among the poor. He tampers with crime scenes to make his shots more compelling. With Rick, Lou enters into a cycle of both trying to help his homeless underling and hindering him at every step.
The movie’s rising tension climaxes with a stunning chase sequence seen by the audience, at least at the beginning, from Lou’s point of view across the street. Planned out by Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit down to the last detail, the sequence escalates with a down-to-Earth brutality, punctuated by Lou’s indifference and cruelty towards others.
Nightcrawler doesn’t try to understand how television effects us, instead choosing to focus on Lou’s entitled rise to the top. It’s a smart move. An unforgettable character study, the movie asks what type of creatures will emerge from a present that seems less human every day.
Nightcrawler is streaming on Netflix.