The temptation is to consider Nightcrawler, screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut about a disturbingly ambitious crime scene news footage gatherer named Louis Bloom, merely condemnatory satire of a news culture consumed by sensationalism. The film is certainly that, but it is also so much more. That other, lesser film would have centered on Rene Russo’s news director, Nina Romina, stayed with her in her newsroom, and made us feel good about its critique. After all, we’re only observers of that system (though our eagerness to observe is what encourages the perpetuation of that system).

Nightcrawler takes place on the streets, and its central character is new to the news business. He’s not particularly interested in journalism either, no matter what he tells Nina. He simply sees the most potential for profit in this particular endeavor. It’s telling that Bloom only talks management techniques and corporate strategy. He doesn’t care about anything but financial gain. The news is a means to his American Dream-end. The free press is just another casualty of Louis Bloom’s economic endeavor.

Jake Gyllenhaal is tremendously good as Bloom. He is all eyes, neck, and hair. Makeup department head Donald Mowat, hair department head Candace Neal, hair stylist Pavy Olivarez, and key hair stylist Joy Zapata arrange Bloom like an anthropomorphized vulture. His neck skin is drawn tight, his cheeks are cavernous, and his hair is slicked back as if he has just peed on himself to anesthetize his head against the carnage in which he is about to stick his face. Gyllenhaal keeps his eyes ever-wide—it’s possible he doesn’t blink once during the film’s entire 120 minutes—and constantly leans forward on the look-out for some juicy morsel of death and destruction to consume. Gyllenhaal is unnerving.

He is also seductive, because the philosophy that fuels his actions is the bedrock of our society. He understands and ably describes how our economy, justice system, and media culture work, and he takes advantage of that entire system. We often mistake correct description of a system and success within it for absolution of that system. Just because a method is effective doesn’t mean we should adhere to it. The “way things are” is rarely the way things should be.

Lou Bloom is a dehydrated capitalist, a white man weaned on the collected works of Dale Carnegie and Zig Zigler, and dried out by lean economic times. All that’s left of him is economic ambition and an unshyness about feasting on the blood of his neighbors. He will do anything to climb higher than his competition. Anything. Admittedly, Bloom is the dark side of our system—a nightcrawler even before he joins the ranks of the news crews scouring L.A.’s nocturn—but the darkness isn’t far from the light.

Bloom is any of us any time we are willing to feed on the wreckage of another’s life as we are so often wont to do. We thrive on scandal. It gets clicks and likes and retweets and faves. But this isn’t new to the social media era. We used to just call it gossip, and it happened over water coolers, backyard fences, beers in local bars, and phone lines with the operator listening in. It still happens in all those places. We just also do it online and simultaneously archive it in the Library of Congress.

Like Bloom, we are now participants in this media culture, hoping to up our social and economic status by capitalizing on the carrion in others’ lives. Every clickbait headline is the “viewer discretion advised” warning that tempts us to stay tuned for the gruesome images to follow after the break. This new arena for gossip is another outworking of capitalism’s propensity to take advantage of the vulnerability, be that the vulnerability of sweat shop workers, slaves, the natural world, or cracks in the justice system. Capitalism capitalizes on need, and everybody needs something sometime. Unless we all stop circling, the vultures will eventually appear over each of our heads.

If that all sounds terribly dour, that’s because it is, but only thematically. Nightcrawler is also funny and gripping. It’s a tarred comedy, a wheezy laugh through polluted lungs and a heart-pumping thriller all at once. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen this year. It’s a movie headed for a heart attack that somehow keeps ticking ’til the end, and when the end comes, you better believe Lou Bloom will be there to catch it on tape. Video at 11.

You might also find these reviews of Nightcrawler helpful:

Christianity Today
Larsen On Film
Reel Gospel