There will be some general story spoilers for the first half of this, but not much that you can't deduce from the trailer. I'm going to warn you before I blow bigger stuff, and then I'm going to tip-toe around the last 20 minutes or so of the film. I'm not sure how other reviewers have decided to handle this, but much of the back half of the film plays better if you go in fresh.
Right from the start, NIGHTCRAWLER lets you know that it's about a character who isn't going to be easy to like. At. All. We meet Jake Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom as he breaks into a construction site to steal materials to re-sell as scrap. A guard catches him and Lou unconvincingly tries to talk his way out of it before beating up the guard and then stealing his expensive watch.
In the next scene, Lou tries to sell the scrap to a junk dealer and it's apparent that Lou either can't read social cues or actively has decided not to cater to them. First he tries to negotiate a higher price for his find, in the process pissing off the dealer. Then he asks the man if he can have a job, not even waiting for the owner to really respond before launching into a long, prepared speech about how he's a hard worker and not going to come with an entitled attitude like so many of his generation.
Lou Bloom is the kind of guy who makes you uncomfortable when he talks to you. At first, he reminded me of people who read The Secret or who took one of those bullshit life coaching classes where they preach persistence above all else, no matter the reaction. In Lou's world, "no" doesn't mean "no" so much as it's a provocation to reload and try again. Even if we hadn't seen how Lou obtained his junk, that sequence with the dealer alone would be enough for us to find him off-putting.
Eventually, we come to understand that his alien nature is what gives him his power. It puts his opponents off-balance, and opponents is precisely the right word because Lou treats every encounter like it's a move in a larger chess game. He has zero empathy with anyone, to the point where he's a near sociopath.
Quickly, Lou becomes fascinated by the work of videographers who spend nights listening to police scanners and arriving at accident and crime scenes with the intent of shooting and selling footage to local news stations. Fatal accidents and shootings command the biggest bucks, and while some might cringe at the moral issues involved in crashing a carjacking scene and filming a victim take his last breaths while paramedics work to save him, Lou has no such qualms. It's as if he's found his calling.
Before long, Lou has added another member to his team, a young man named Rick (Riz Ahmed, doing good work as one of the movie's only likable characters) who's desperate for a job. In another marvelous dialogue scene, Lou firmly informs the young man that this isn't a playing job, it's an "internship." He hits all the usual points about how this can be an "opportunity" for the young man and if you don't want to punch Lou in the face by the end of this scene, you've never tried hunting for a job in at least the last ten years.
The fascinating thing about this is how Lou manages to get exactly what he wants through sheer force of personality. There's no charisma to what he does, nothing that gives a person the grounds to think, "Well, he seems like a totally nice guy. I'll go the extra mile for him." He is unapologetic and emotionally detached. When engages people, it's only to get something he wants and the reparte is almost entirely on showing the person how screwed they are if they don't comply. It's not so much horse-trading as it is, "I'm going to take your horse. And I'm going to explain why you're better off just letting that happen."
There's a long history in film and TV of charismatic assholes, and yet, they often become beloved characters. Think of Ari Gold from Entourage, a character who is the epitome of every horrible trait you could find in his profession. He's a bully, he's racist, he threatens people, he destroys careers... and yet even as he does this, there's such magnetism to the character that one almost goes, "Ha ha... that's our Ari! What's he up to next?" He's not even at Walter White levels of "Wow, that was awful, but it was badass too!" Watch those guys (or Boston Legal's Alan Shore, or Scrubs's Dr. Cox, to name two other notable TV assholes) and some dark part of your soul goes, "Damn, I wish I could be cool as those guys." I don't know if there's anything "cool" about Lou Bloom.
This is not a criticism of Gyllenhaal's performance, by the way. Quite the opposite, he commits to Lou's horrible nature fully and completely, with no attempt at all to smooth off some rough edges to get us rooting for the guy. There's possibly a great counterexample even within the same film, through Bill Paxton's character as a rival nightcrawler. Paxton's chasing down the same sort of footage, preying on victims of violence in much the same way. Even as he's being a loudmouth, there's something likable about the guy. He's "a guy you could have a beer with." It's not even that the film seems to be trying to get us to like Paxton, we just kind of accept him. It shows just how hard they work to make sure Lou doesn't provoke a "Hey, he's kinda fun!" reaction.
Every success Lou has is followed up in pretty short measure by some scene that reminds us Lou is pretty slimy. Midway through the film, he takes news director Nina (Rene Russo) out to drinks. He's already asked her out and been rebuffed in an earlier scene and after a relatively unveiled threat to take his footage elsewhere, Lou manages to talk her into joining him.
What follows is a truly despicable conversation where he causally reveals to Nina that he's researched a great deal about her on the internet, successfully targets her insecurity and vulnerability - specifically that she is probably not long for that job and that the upcoming ratings period is crucial to her future - and extorts her not only for a higher pay rate, but also better credit, important introductions at the station and, oh yes, sexual favors. While there is a token attempt to let Nina know that accepting this deal benefits her, it's more of the "do this and I won't have to shoot you" variety rather than a true "win-win." This isn't deal-making, it's blackmail.
(Russo, by the way, is also excellent in her supporting role. It's a real shame that her only other roles since 2005 have been in the THOR movies.)
HEAVIER SPOILERS BELOW
Of course, all this pales when cast against what Lou does in the second half of the film. Thanks to a police scanner (and a mandate to chase stories that prey on the white fear of urban crime creeping into their "safe" communities) Lou arrives on the scene of a home invasion just before the suspects flee. He gets footage of them and their car, then enters the affluent home and rolls footage on the brutal aftermath. Three people have been shot dead in gruesome fashion, their bodies left to bleed throughout the opulent setting. Lou gets what he needs and flees the scene before the cops arrive.
Nina's practically salivating at the footage (which has been clipped of the footage of the killers by the time Lou passes it on) and makes it the lead of the next newscast. Some of her colleagues have clear misgivings about using it, but Nina knows it's ratings gold and watching her direct the reporters' live commentary on the footage makes it clear just how she wants this story received. The local news mandate is to scare the crap out of their viewers - that way they'll keep coming back for updates.
And then there's the matter of how Lou exploits the footage he held back of the killers. Even with a spoiler warning, I feel like it would be a crime to blow this for the audience. Suffice to say that Lou's amoral nature and desire to create a newsworthy event goes far past most people's moral threshold. It actually makes him vulnerable for once, as he enters into a negotiation where someone else has leverage over him. There's some nice writing of that scene, where both players realize the power dynamic has shifted. You can almost see the gears working in their heads as that happens. It's the kind of moment we don't get enough of in film, seeing characters actually think. (It's also a nice showcase for the actor who becomes Gyllenhaal's sparring partner in that sequence.)
Watching Lou's plans play out make for some of the most intense moments in film this year. Watching this, you would never guess that it was screenwriter Dan Gilroy's directing debut. Not only does he have a wonderful command of character and dialogue in the script, but Gilroy has an innate sense of where to put the camera. He knows when to lock us into a particular character's point of view and watch tension build at a distance, and he knows when to put us right in the thick of the action. I felt like I was watching the work of Michael Mann circa Collateral.
As someone currently working on a script involving a sociopath and a character who isn't likable or redeemable in the least, NIGHTCRAWLER was a valuable study. There's a lot this script can teach about character crafting. I've said before that one of the necessary components of any great script is a strong character we don't feel like we've seen before. Lou Bloom is not the sort of character I've run across often. Creating him is an act of bravery on the part of Gillroy and Gyllenhaal, and it won't surprise me if that boldness is rewarded throughout Oscar season.