NIGHTCRAWLER. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton. Directed by Dan Gilroy. 117 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong themes and violence).

Brilliant performances (particularly a gaunt, hungry Jake Gyllenhaal) and a sharp screenplay make ‘Nightcrawler’ a scathing satire of our media-driven culture which demands to be seen – just be wary of its dark thematic pull and stark violence.

Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is unemployed, driving around Los Angeles at night stealing and selling scrap metal. He is looking for more fulfilling work, and confidently spools off what sounds like a ‘how to’ business guide to potential employers, all of whom are put off by his intensity. Driving home, he encounters a car wreck, and witnesses several cameraman swarming to the scene, led by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). They capture the accident, telling Lou it will be sold to a news channel for a high price to be shown on the morning broadcast. Lou decides that this is a line of work he may be interested in, and acquires a camera and a police scanner. Loder says of the footage ‘If it bleeds, it leads’, and the accident and crime scenes throughout the film are very explicit, and not for the faint of heart.

Driving around at night, Lou responds to random police calls, eventually making a break when he captures the aftermath of a fatal carjacking as paramedics try in vain to resuscitate the victim. He sells the footage to Nina (Rene Russo), the news director of a struggling local channel, and begins to cultivate a professional relationship with her. Looking to expand his business, Lou hires Rick (Riz Ahmed) as an assistant, in charge of navigation and secondary filming. Russo is bitingly funny at first, leading Lou into this amoral underworld, but when Lou’s actions begins to affect her more personally, her portrayal conveys a very real fear. Ahmed is the film’s outstanding breakthrough, a tragic character marked by his innocence, borne onwards by Lou’s confident managerial style and enthusiasm. Playing Rick, Ahmed is vulnerable and quiet at first, developing very genuinely into the audience’s voice of doubt as the film progresses.

An extended montage, tightly edited by John Gilroy and scored by James Newton Howard, shows us their business succeeding as they pick up more stories, and upgrade from Lou’s old car to a brand new Mustang. Gyllenhaal slowly shows more and more of his horrific amorality, tampering with accident scenes to create better footage, and using any means to reduce his competition. At the news station, he uses his top-selling footage as leverage for greater pay, more recognition, and – in one of the picture’s most disturbing scenes – tries to blackmail Nina into a sexual relationship. Again, writer-director Dan Gilroy’s tale is not for everyone, but the furious wit and thrilling plotting at every turn kept me constantly engaged.

Lou’s biggest break comes when he arrives at a breaking and entering crime scene before the police do, capturing the perpetrators on camera, but withholds this information from detectives (led by the very strong actress Michael Hyatt) to try and track them down himself. This situation spirals out of control as the bodies mount and Lou’s actions become increasingly questionable. Bloom’s hidden fury and repugnant actions are brilliantly captured by Gyllenhaal, who should receive some recognition for his work in the coming awards season.

Los Angeles provides an appropriately seedy backdrop for Gilroy’s film, and is captured wonderfully by cinematographer Robert Elswit. Shot mainly by night, Elswit’s use of street lights and neons give the film a very natural, cinema verite feel, appropriate for its tale of news cameramen.

‘Nightcrawler’ is not a mainstream film for general audiences to enjoy, but a relatively low budget independent action thriller with a strong head on its shoulders. Cerebral and visceral, this satire succeeds on every level.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out November 27.

Madman Entertainment.

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