Journalism in many ways is a business where you have to have grit in your soul to survive, thrive, and prosper. You have to be willing to take risks, get in dangerous situations, and, at times, metaphorically crush the throat of your competition. This is not for the faint of heart.
With these qualities to the business, it is no real surprise that journalism is a subject often tackled in films, most of them not pretty. From Orson Welles’ epic Citizen Kane (1941), to The Front Page (1974), to Broadcast News (1987), Almost Famous (2000), Capote (2005), and so many others, these movies have thrilled us, made us think and question our own reality, and moved us to cheers, tears, and sometimes moral repulsion.
Dan Gilroy’s modern master-piece Nightcrawler (2014), is a film that illustrates this grit, and amorality, that can crop up in the journalistic jungle where it can quite often seem purely Darwinian rules of survival apply, reminding me very much of another film celebrating an anniversary this year: Sweet Smell of Success (1957). A “nightcrawler” or “stringer” in journalism is a free-lance videographer or journalist who chases fires, accidents, or brutal crimes in urban areas, with the aid of a police scanner (this is another close parallel with noir history, more on that below), in the hope of selling any video that is shot or stories compiled to the highest bidding news outlet in their metro area.
Nightcrawler has more than a few parallels in the aesthetics and historical development of film noir, despite not really being noir. One of the most striking aesthetics of the film is the wide-angle, colorful cinematic takes on the decaying urban industrial California landscape. Much of the cinematography reminded me of a take on an Edward Hopper painting with the very Realist color palette.
Notice the very modernist and realist use of color in these works from Hopper — the glow of neon and flourescent light. This is urban desolation. Notice the stark similarities to the still from Nightcrawler below, especially in color temperature.
Nightcrawler tells the story of amoral hustler Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who starts the film off being harassed as he attempts to steal copper off a construction site somewhere in Los Angeles, then taking his haul to a scrapyard owner, trying to hock it.
Louis Bloom (“Louis,” not “Lou” — the character’s officiousness is a rather odd trait, but certainly one that fits his uppity demeanor) is an industrious guy, quick to learn, and very, very amoral. He reminds one of a hungry coyote throughout Nightcrawler. That leitmotif was very conscious in Jake Gyllenhaal’s superb performance in this very unconventional role and in the minds of the film makers (notice all the coyote imagery throughout the film). Gyllenhaal worked out, allegedly, for 8 hours a day, and ran or biked to the set every day to give Bloom the physically gaunt look of a hungry coyote. Gyllenhaal further utilized a technique first put into practice with the filming of Donnie Darko in 2001, and also used extensively by Anthony Hopkins in his seminal performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991): controlling how often he blinks his eyes while in character. Consciously watch for this; it adds quite the extra dimension to a character’s intensity.
Gyllenhaal really nails the character on every conceivable front, every amoral dimension, and not in any “character growth” on a story arc, but rather though accentuating Bloom’s amoral qualities as what may have attracted him to nightcrawling in the first place.
That’s a curious, yet very deliberate thing about Nightcrawler — there is, in essence, no arc of moral development as part of the story. We never get to see Louis Bloom grow morally because he is not capable of such growth. He is a sociopath, attracted to a business that rewards those amoral sociopathic qualities of his personality, as will become very evident towards the film’s end.
We see Bloom’s mouth water as he comes across a strange opportunity upon leaving the scrapyard after selling his loot. There is a brutal accident on the Los Angeles highway he is traveling along. He stops out of pure morbid curiosity, and gets caught in conversation with a man (one of Bill Paxton’s final roles) in a van loaded with video gear as he walks away from the flaming vehicle with a hand-held video camera. Bloom quickly engages him in conversation and learns a few quick things about “nightcrawling.”
The next scenes show Bloom pawning some of his possessions to get a cheap video camera and a police scanner as he starts his foray into the seedy underbelly of urban LA to catch footage of nature’s brutality against man, and man’s brutality against his fellow man.
An interesting parallel with the history of film noir here is the character of Arthur Fellig, also known as “Weegee the Famous.” Weegee was really the FIRST nightcrawler, as he traversed the streets of Manhattan’s lower east side in his car with his 5x4 plate camera, flash bulbs, and a police scanner during prohibition — photographing murders, suicides, the poor, gangsters, winos, and prostitutes.
Weegee was a self-taught photographer, who allegedly got his nickname from working as a “photo squeegee guy” in some development room in New York City. Through his connections to gangsters like Lucky Luciano, he soon started chasing crime, shooting in the field, and selling his work to the highest bidding tabloid periodical in the city.
Weegee did A LOT to basically found modern tabloid journalism and crime scene photography. He was so successful, that he earned another nickname: “The Official Photographer of Murder, Inc.,” and his book “Naked City” (1945) was a huge impetus for the visual imagery (along with Italian Neo-Realism) in the 1948 film of the same name, directed by Jules Dassin.
Louis Bloom takes up Weegee’s mantle in Nightcrawler quite well (albeit with a more amoral edge, despite Weegee doing things like moving items at a scene around to get a better shot composition, he never sunk to the depths Bloom did — you’ll see what I mean when you watch Nightcrawler), as he learns the ropes of the business and improves his eye and technology with every excursion. In the process, will he be touched by the evil he sees? Will Bloom become a part of it in the Darwinian journalistic jungle?
Furthermore, what does it say about us, the viewing public, that we constantly demand these images, making the old journalistic adage “if it bleeds it leads” true? Nightcrawler forces us, in a very eloquent way, to look at all these questions.