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“I’ve been working on framing” says a gaunt Jake Glyllenhaal, coolly, as relaxed as if his footage of multiple murders were a piece of performance art. Ultimately that’s exactly what Dan Gilroy’s unnerving protagonist Lou Bloom comes off as in this film: an artist. It’s all one elaborate and meticulously planned act, a guise perfected to fool hungry eyes.
Lou is a mystery and his elusiveness is part of what makes this film so intriguing. We construct Lou through his actions, as we have nothing else to go by; we listen like the other members of the cast to his plans, his high and mighty tracts of business management, and watch as he manipulates and cheats his way into getting what he wants. With no backstory, his character exists in secure and unquestioned isolation, a bleak and conveniently blank canvas – and a remarkably comfortable one for a petty thief. Lou seems to exist just fine with only a pot plant and numerous screens for company, his dislocation from society at large just as unnerving as his dislocation from a moral compass of any kind, something that seeps steadily into the film from the very start.
Yet what makes Gilroy’s directorial debut so compelling is the calm delusion of his protagonist. Lou is completely unreliable and yet simultaneously somehow strangely sympathetic. Despite his egotistical and corrupted actions he appears to maintain a sense of great personal integrity, his management mantra a guiding light in his ever darkening world of greed and corruption, in which the fast paced and brutal world of TV press politics fuels Lou’s growing obsession with documenting death in its entirety. Like the Duke in Browning’s My Last Duchess he seeks to capture life in perfect stillness: “On TV everything seems so real,” he says with an eerie grin. Lou will do anything and everything to get the perfect shot. If people die for it? Then so be it. Life and its presentation on TV is a game in which Bloom holds all the strings, and yet — spoiler alert — the expected comeuppance for such arrogance in pulling all the strings, and setting people to dance to his eerie tune never fully comes. We’re left with the disturbing conclusion that such corruption is thriving in the world, and — rather than suffering — its perpetrators are simply revelling in their own games, still watching, still recording, slowly but surely controlling everything we view with pin-point precision, orchestrating the very manner in which we go about our daily lives.
Press bias and manipulation in the media are by no means new topics, yet Gyllenhaal and Gilroy manage to give the same issues a new, exciting and emaciated face. The cast and crew of this film bring into sharp focus the dilemmas that arise in an industry where profit can be made from pain. We watch helplessly as the isolated Lou falls into this vicious cycle, breaking into the business of accident reportage, and then beating the experts of this dark trade at their own twisted game. He races to the sites of car crashes, home invasions, fires, stabbings, not to help but to benefit from the visual violence of the events. Lou’s misguided assistant, the poor Rick who is roped into Lou’s “business plan” is played with utter conviction by Riz Ahmed, and Rene Russo excels as Nina the news editor – the femme fatale of the news world – who needs to keep viewers’ attention so badly that she’ll do whatever—and implicitly whoever— it takes to keep people watching.
As the film progresses so does the brutality of Lou’s shots. But who is the most terrifying character? It’s actually the one that never makes an appearance, the silent yet ever present power of … well, us. The audience. Who propels these TV ratings? Who inadvertently calls for more drama, more bloodshed, more extremes? Who is Russo desperately, savagely, trying to feed and keep glued to the screen? It’s the doting and deluded public, those who scoff and ridicule the system in which they are, ultimately, the crucial players. Reno’s life is one dictated by the ratings that her job produces. Without views, without viewers, she is powerless. News becomes less about the news and more about getting people’s attention. TV is the latest drug and Reno’s job is to ensure everyone gets their next hit.
Lou’s footage brings with it a wealth of hits, it may be savage but this is a world in which – as the mantra goes – “if it bleeds it leads”. At its heart, this film questions our notions of humanity, it questions the borders that we make between fact and fiction, how much we turn to the news for information, and how much for a visual hit, a surge of self-satisfaction that today it is not us, today we are the lucky ones. We, like Rick, are bundled along for the ride as the film asks us openly what we would do in Lou, Rick or even Nina’s situation: just how far will we go to succeed? How far are we willing to go in order to get the latest scoop, the next story, the next big thing? Lou will go as far as you could dare, and then further but what really scares us is the most human part of him. It’s not his avid camera that disturbs us, but his eyes, those large bulging eyes that beg to see every tiny detail, relishing each accident, each twisted scrap of metal as it falls away from the bumper of a car, each bloody footprint on a once-white carpet — because what Gilroy so perfectly makes us realise is that these hungry eyes are in fact our own.
Nightcrawler is out in cinemas now.