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The weird thing about economic trades of any sort is that our society tends to conceive of them as rational, detached, often amoral matters, when in fact they are incredibly intimate. We’re relying on our fellow human beings for our food, water, shelter, entertainment, culture, and all the other necessities of life, both great and small. When it comes to employment, we’re relying on them for the very wages that make all those other goods possible. Yet the exchange of money and the bloodless language of “professionalism” allow us to pretend this arrangement is purely technocratic or material, without the deep human obligations it obviously should come with when taken at face value.

In short, most of us do not know what to make of trades, morally speaking. Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the most anti of anti-heroes in Nightcrawler, is not most people. Pale, oily, almost frighteningly thin, and always ready with a sickly false smile and a chipper tidbit of corporate self-help jargon, Louis is in love with the trade, the bid, the hustle. He also happens to be a brazen psychopath. All of which makes Louis uniquely suited to thriving in the moral no man’s land of capitalist exchange, and Gyllenhaal’s performance is a sight to behold.

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The film, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, is ostensibly an ultra-dark satire of freelance, underground crime journalism in Los Angeles. But its real target is the way that viewing our fellow human beings as mere things allows us to better embody the essential capitalist virtues. At one point, when Louis makes a request of his underling and co-photographer Rick (Riz Ahmed) that’s so unethical Rick finally works up the courage to refuse – after already demanding a raise and a promotion from Louis once he realizes where the night is going – Louis calmly, almost regrettably threatens to hurt Rick if he doesn’t comply. It shows that the one thing that gets under Louis’ skin is losing his bargaining power. But also that he sees physical violence as just another trade: once he’s threatened it, Rick can choose to endure it or do what is necessary to avoid it.

“What if my problem isn’t that I don’t understand people,” Louis asks Rick, “but that I don’t like them?” Crime journalism is just the career path he hits on to channel his contempt.

Appropriately, Gilroy shoots his nighttime urban exteriors with a florescent corporate sheen, like an abandoned skyrise lobby after-hours. In the day, the light is almost oppressive, forcing Louis to constantly hide behind his aviators. It’s the director presenting Los Angeles through his protagonist’s eyes: it’s a cornucopia of endless, soulless economic possibility.

Meanwhile, as the screenwriter, Gilroy structures his story on the model of the kid from the wrong side of the tracks who makes good, getting his film in at a punchy 117 minutes. The first half of Nightcrawler unspools as a character study, with the real meat of the plot not kicking in until midway. But as an avatar of can-do gumption unencumbered by conscience, Louis is sufficiently horrifying and captivating to carry us through the build-up of the early scenes. And the score – an impressively original, ethereal and electric-guitar-laden work by James Newton Howard – pays homage to that twisted uplift.

When we first encounter Louis, he literally has nothing. He’s making money by stealing copper wire and manhole covers and other odds and ends from an industrial site, pausing only to beat up a security guard and take his watch. Later, Louis stumbles across Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a freelance photographer who scans police radios all day for crimes, then rushes to be the first to get the footage and sell it off to the highest-bidding local news station. Inspiration strikes, Louis steals a bike, pawns it, and buys a police scanner and a cheap digital camcorder. Pretty soon he’s giving Loder a run for his money.

There’s also a twisted co-dependent relationship between Louis’ career choice and his life philosophy. Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is the producer who runs the station Louis begins selling to, and she bluntly informs him they want crime in high-income white areas, perpetrated by low-income non-whites. Perversely, Louis’ utter lack of ethics or empathy makes him the one working class hero who can give the affluent the self-justification they want. Money and class status allow well-off Angelenos (and really, all of us in the upper class) to pretend it’s civilized to hire people at exploitatively low wages, fire them when they don’t perform to every standard, cut their social safety net programs, and bust their unions. Meanwhile, Louis, who has no compunction about throwing his fellow struggling peons under the bus, is the platonic ideal of the “good” poor person in the mythos of American capitalism.

Louis is also more honest than the rest of us: he engages openly in the same sociopathy we carry out under the cover of our comparative good fortune.

All of which does not make Nightcrawler a happy film. But it is a darkly thrilling and mesmerizing one – rather like Louis’ videos – not to mention a gorgeous film to see and hear. And while it’s storytelling ambitions are a humble character study with a simple plot, Nightcrawler’s underlying moral revelation lands with a brutal punch.

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