Dan Gilroy’s first feature film, “Night Crawler,” is a rare treat, a perfect thriller, a soufflé that rises as it should and keeps its superlatively fluffy texture from minute one to minute 117. But you stand warned, this film about a sleazy, nasty loser-drifter who has watched one too many TED talk about how to be wildly successful will not be as easy to digest. Jake Gyllenhaal, skinny, driven, with the smile a rattlesnake would have if it could smile, is a purveyor of the worse sort of gore/racism/voyeuristic fare early morning TV shows dish up between the coffee we gulp down and the iPhone we check before setting out for the day. Is that a time slot for political discussion, a Supreme Court decision or hunger in Africa ? Not really. What we only have time for is a weather report followed by a two-minute account of the horrors that have taken place in our community during the night, complete with visuals and warnings that the images we are about to see are not for everyone.
In “Night Crawler,” our man Lou Bloom, forcefully played by Gyllenhaal, slithers in. Always on the lookout for the road to a quick buck, he discovers how much shorter it is when going straight to crime- or accident-video footage when one is first on the scene and knows how to make a sale. Forever touting how he’s a quick learner, among other great qualities he loves in himself and keeps pointing out, he masters the trade, elbows out rivals–even long-time veterans of the trade–grabs their methods and their contacts at the local networks, first and foremost Nina. This TV-station news manager (Rene Russo) is witness to the shrinking of her station losing out to the usual assortment of adverse conditions: bad ratings, competition etc. In Bloom’s brilliant smile, in his initial offering of manufactured human drama, with lots of real blood, in his sales pitch to keep on topping that effort—and boy, does he!—she sees the promise of being able to hold on to her job a while longer. Also, she hardly hides the fact that beside the practical side of her collaboration with Bloom, she is physically aroused by the awful scenes he brings her, making her hungry for more.
With the help of a police scanner, his cameras and his hapless assistant Rick (brilliantly portrayed by the British actor Riz Ahmed) he goes deeper and deeper into murky territory. Nothing will stop him, unethical means zilch and the word heartless was coined to define him. He mesmerizes his assistant, disposes of whoever needs to be disposed of. When Rick questions his methods, he retorts, “You say that I don’t try to understand people. Has it never occurred to you that I don’t like people?” We get that part fairly soon but like those early-morning viewers we are drawn in and kept fascinated. A terrific film that will find its place alongside “Network” or “Taxi Driver,” while not a sweeping judgment on our society, it gives us an image of ourselves we may not be comfortable facing. That’s what superlative works of art often do.