Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an unemployed thief who becomes a freelance video journalist to escape a life selling scrap metal.
With the aid of a police scanner and a car he is first to the scene of crimes, films the immediate aftermath and sells the footage to a local news channel.
While ostensibly a crime thriller, the real tension doesn’t come from the crimes, but from Bloom’s increasing desperation to appease the demands of news editors.
The 24-hour news cycle survives on an endless search for stories more sensational than the last. Death and destruction are powerful commodities in an industry less interested in serious news than ruthless “gotcha” journalism.
It requires freelancers to get the most bloody footage of dying victims and forces journalists to abandon any kind of respect for suffering in order to get the “best” shots. Watching Bloom becoming ever more dependent on the thrill of the chase drives the momentum of the plot.
The film takes a particularly dark turn when Bloom uses the value of his footage to sexually harass his news editor. These scenes are extremely uncomfortable to watch.
Gyllenhaal showcases his ability to inhabit a character, effortlessly switching from charisma to aggression without taking a breath. Bloom is not a hero for the masses — he seems to have little empathy for others and behaves in a single-minded way that makes him perfect for the job.
It becomes clear that in order to practice journalism you are expected to be uncritical of the news gathering process. Those who raise ethical questions are quickly silenced.
The desire for ratings, and therefore profit, shapes every aspect of the 24-hour news industry. The film shows how incidents can be manipulated into moral panics.
The imposing skyline, unaccountable media and widespread poverty can make it seem as though the film is set in a dystopian future, when in fact it reflects the reality of present day America.
Desperation is a recurring motif. People committing either white collar or economic crimes do it because they feel like they have no other choice.
Nightcrawler is a powerful study of an industry struggling to maintain dominance in an increasingly online world. The audience is encouraged to cast a critical eye over the processes of news reporting.
Although this is a mainstream film, the questions it raises are important — how and why different events are reported shapes our understanding of the world around us.