Norman Bates. Mark Lewis. Michael Corleone. Travis Bickle. Connect the dots. They are all lead antagonists in their respective movies. They trudge through conflicted lives carrying heavy burdens, trying desperately to connect with people on an emotional level. For some of them, emotions bring out their worst. Travis is not even aware he has emotions. Others, like Michael, prefer solitude because solitude prefers them. They have something else in common: Tragedy. They are pathetic characters, wrung out by society, left to die.
So now we have Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler, also pathetic, also wrung out by society, also a villain. He is played flawlessly by Jake Gyllenhaal, who no doubt deserves an award for his performance. He makes Louis a slimy fellow, twisted in the head, about as approachable as a spinning propellor. When we first meet him, he’s trying to break into a scrapyard. Then he kills, or we are led to believe he kills a security guard. So far so good. He’s shaping up to be a decent villain. 5 points. Next, he applies for a job. He’s calm, polite, courtly. He gets rejected. He leaves with a smile. That’s a bit disturbing. 10 more points.
One night he stumbles upon a car wreck. Bill Paxton’s there with a video camera, recording the paramedics attending to the victim. “I sell my videos to the highest bidder”, Paxton says. That sounds like a neat job. Maybe Louis will want in on that. Guess what! He does. He buys a cheap camera, a police scanner, hires an oblivious partner (Riz Ahmed) for peanuts and begins, as they say, nightcrawling across L.A., sniffing out more wrecks, burgles, homicides, etcetera, before anyone else does. 20 points. Cheap assistant for peanuts; 5 bonus points.
Louis starts by capturing footage of cold cases, but tries anyway to sell them to Nina (Rene Russo), the ambitious manager of KWLA News. 5 points. Nina sees something in Louis; a keen eye for the gruesome. In another life he’d be her apprentice, or maybe the other way around. Here, he just wants to get in her pants and blackmails her if she refuses. That’s dastardly! 30 more points. He also wants exclusivity, bragging rights, and higher pay. Another 30.
Now he begins doing things I cannot mention, but let it be known he accumulates 100 more Villain Points throughout the film. He’s right up there, and I was beginning to enjoy Gyllenhaal’s frenzied enthusiasm. But it struck me, the more I watched Louis scratch, claw and maim his way up the ladder, that here is a villain who is like the greats in many ways, in fact in all ways, except one: He is not tragic, nor is he sympathetic, in any form. He is just a villain, and that’s not good storytelling. Minus 205 points.
I will be pilloried and spat on for this review, but I must remain steadfast. Why Bates, Lewis, Corleone and Bickle made such convincing, heartbreaking villains is because we cared for them in spite of their madness. Bates had mommy issues. Lewis had daddy issues. Corleone had family issues. Bickle had all sorts of issues. They were all emotionally castrated by the society that gave birth to them, and none of them ended their movies on a high note. They got their comeuppance, in a way. The fundamental of all lead characters is that we, as the audience, must feel something for them. We must relate to them in some way, sympathise with them, even if they are villains. What good is a central character if we feel nothing?
Indeed, I felt nothing for Louis watching him. I didn’t want him to succeed. I didn’t want Nina to buy his videos. I wanted him to die, because his entire life in Nightcrawler seemed to be heading in that direction, and there would have been justice. Writer/director Dan Gilroy tries his hardest to switch the tables, to make Nina’s boss (Kevin Rahm) the shrivelled up coward, to make the detectives investigating Louis’ suspicious behaviour the bad guys. But Louis has no redeeming feature to switch to. With him there’s no grey, no white, only black. Very, very heavy black. I need at least some grey.
But maybe I’m being silly and need to be slapped around a bit. Nightcrawler has received universal acclaim from most critics. A fellow critic, Rhys Drury, has even gone as far as to name it one of the best movies of the year. I don’t blame him. I can see the appeal. Nightcrawler looks fabulous and is utterly well made and paints the portrait of a psychopath with such a keen eye for characterisation that Louis Bloom will do for Gyllenhaal what Vince Vega did for Travolta. But I’m coming at it obliquely, and I can’t help myself. I want Louis to keep those 205 points, but to do that he’ll need a makeover, pronto.
Best Moment | The climactic restaurant scene and the ensuing car chase. Brilliant, brilliant stuff. James Newton Howard’s score is also great.
Worst Moment | The awkwardness between Louis and Nina. Nina, I think, is an illogical character. How she became such a high-ranking newsperson is beyond me.