I read a comment on Twitter earlier today that satire had ended the day Barrack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Putting aside the specious rationale of that particular bestowal it’s true that modern satire lacks something in grandeur and ferocity. It’s the age of The Onion and The Daily Show; more wisecracks than wizening.
Last year the cinema brought us Spring BreakersThe Bling Ring and The Wolf of Wall Street; celebrations of hedonistic vacuity that wanted to have their cake and eat it, or perhaps a more fitting analogy might be going to an exclusive restaurant and being served  a Big Mac. We could see the joke but the nagging suspicion remained that the gag was really on us and that the films  were more an indulgence of style over substance.

Which in a way makes Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler a pleasingly old school contrast in its lacerating of the American Dream and that age-old scourge of the cinema: television, played superficially as a crime thriller.
‘Nightcrawling’ is the term for the opportunist freelance cameramen who scan police radio and roam the streets of Los Angeles in search of grizzly traffic incidents and violent crimes that they can sell footage of to news networks. “If it bleeds it leads” a veteran nightcrawler tells Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young loner and smalltime crook looking for a career who chances upon such a filming.
In no time at all Bloom has set himself up in business, discovering that a lack of moral scruples and the self-taught management rhetoric he adopts as a mantra make him ideally suited to rise in his chosen profession. His exploits bring him into contact with Nina (Rene Russo), a veteran news editor desperate to secure exclusives that might just keep her in a job and the two fall develop a symbiotic, not to mention perverse, relationship that sees Bloom keep pushing the envelope in his desire to reach the top.
From thirties screwballs such as It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday, to allegories of the abuse of power such as Ace in the Hole and Sweet Smell of Success to the post Watergate cynicism of Network, Hollywood’s fascination with all that is venal and self serving about the news media has seldom abated, and perhaps it’s that it perceives its own dark reflection.
Yet scandalous as it might be the only thing that’s really new about this form of journalism is it’s choice of medium. Sixty-five years ago Bloom would have been trying to hawk his offerings to downmarket tabloids or the lurid crime magazines like True Detective which Americans read in copious quantities and this could as easily be an oblique updating of a Chandler or Hammett story. The noir influence permeates to such such an extent that the handful of daylight scenes seem like limp and perfunctory connecting devices. Bloom’s psychopathology appears less that of an aberrant personality and more a symptom of LA’s endemic sleaze.
Gyllenhaal is seldom off screen and his portrayal of Bloom – a gaunt, intense parody of the go-getting entrepreneur, seemingly naive but increasingly Machiavellian – is chilling and magnetic. Comparisons have been made with Christian Bale’s American Psycho, but Gyllenhaal is a more accessible, far less introverted performer. It could be his most career-defining role since he first emerged with Donnie Darko and an Oscar nomination wouldn’t appear out of the question.
Although she gets less screen time Russo (writer/director Gilroy’s real-life spouse) also excels. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Bloom nonchalantly sets out why sleeping with him would make sound business sense, has little choice but to accede to his demands. Like JG Ballard’s Crash (and Cronenberg’s adaptation of the same), there’s a suggestion that the scenes of carnage Lou seeks out to film is borne partly of sexual perversion, albeit with greed as an aphrodisiac.

Ultimately the film’s only real failing is that of all but the most epic satires: a lack of pathos. As Bloom goes to ever more outrageous lengths to gain exclusives so does our desire for some sense of moral restoration. That this never materialises diminishes the whole and leaves an absence of closure; faithful to the cynical truths it espouses perhaps, but forsaking catharsis to do so.


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