TTAC At The Movies: "Nightcrawler"

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

If you’ve seen the trailers or even the promotional poster for “Nightcrawler”, you know that Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, late-night independent crime videographer Lou Bloom, trades in his 1985 Tercel for a red Challenger SRT8 pretty early in the film. So that’s not a spoiler, is it? But everything below the jump will be, so click carefully.

Very few recent films have received the kind of critical acclaim that has already been piled upon “Nightcrawler”, due in no small part to Gyllenhaal himself and the considerable physical transformation he underwent in order to become Lou Bloom. Running fifteen miles to the set every day and chewing “luxury gum” instead of eating allowed Gyllenhaal to drop to 150 pounds from an already-lean 180 and made him, by his own admission, more than a little crazy. His gaunt, exaggerated features are under-lit throughout this very dark (in the literal sense) movie by police spotlights, the still-shining headlights of crashed vans, the dim bulbs of cheap apartment bathrooms, the glare of video monitors, and, finally, the Los Angeles sun.

Insofar as Lou Bloom is fundamentally insane, however — and we’ll return to that in a bit — this is just more of the Oscar fodder that critics love. And since this is TTAC, we might as well get right to the real star of the movie — the pre-facelift Challenger SRT8 6.1L. A few establishing scenes using the Tercel early in the movie show that Lou likes to drive fast and is remarkably unsensitive to risk. The only problem is that the Tercel isn’t fast enough to get to late-night car crashes and home invasions before the other videographers, so as soon as his finances permit it, Lou swaps out for the Challenger and proceeds to put the hammer down.

Not that a Challenger SRT8 isn’t fast enough for any street in America — the 6.1 automatics are known for running 13.0 second quarter-miles in the hands of owners — but surely this was a gold-plated opportunity to put a Hellcat in front of the camera. Even a Scat Pack or SRT-8 facelift car would have been preferable. Hell, the 6.4L has been out for a few years now. Was the fact that Nightcrawler was an indie film enough to put off the Mopar PR crowd, or was the choice of a used car a deliberate one? The Challenger owners group forums note that different cars might have been used for interior and exterior shots. The dash shots clearly show the original modern Challenger’s Chrysler-300-derived dashboard.

Once the action ramps up, however, the precise provenance of the red Chally becomes mostly irrelevant and it’s time for a variety of “we’re going really FAST!” shots. A few of them are the usual movie stupidity. One sweeping helicopter shot over a mountain road shows the SRT-8 doing the same kind of pace you’d expect from a rental RV, but dubbed in with some HEMI noise to go along with the quick cutaways. Not convincing at all.

When it’s time for the movie’s climactic car chase, however, things get real very quickly. Nightcrawlers perfectly captures the absolutely claustrophobic feel of doing triple the speed limit on a close-coupled urban six-lane, well after dark. Parked cars flash by. Stoplights appear and disappear. A moment’s worth of indecision is enough to lose a few blocks in the wrong direction. The drivers are in a hurry and the vehicle dynamics reflect this: there’s no forced oversteer or needless spinning of tires. One of the most satisfying shots in the movie catches the Tercel making a fast left across traffic; the set of the nose as the outside tire grips to turn-in and the resulting minor yaw is absolutely authentic and reinforces the notion that the movie was shot at pace, not sped up in post-production.

Another refreshing difference: Nearly every movie in history suffers from what I think of as Super Cop Cars. No matter how fast of a car you have, when you’re running from the police you will be unable to put clear air between you and a Crown Vic. This ridiculous trope even appears in Basic Instinct: Nick’s cop car, a Gran Fury, is just as fast as Catherine’s Peter Stevens-era Lotus Esprit Turbo.

Not so here: not only does a six-liter Cadillac Escalade pull away from the Crown Vics, Lou Bloom’s Challenger is able to toy with them, repeatedly having to back off during the final chase so as not to run into them from behind. The SRT-8’s superior dynamic envelope allows him to play cat and mouse with both the cop cars and the Escalade. He also easily outbrakes them, as would be the case in real life. If there’s any unrealistic aspect to the scenes at all, it’s the slow-hands way Lou drives the car. For a guy with no prospects in life and no real education or background to speak of, he sure is a classically outstanding wheelman. Maybe he was just born to it.

Nightcrawler is alternately thrilling and cringe-inducing. It’s great to watch and time truly flies in the theater as you watch Lou Bloom progress from small-time crook to small businessman. There’s just one tiny problem with the movie, and this has nothing to do with the choice of a 425hp Chally instead of a 470hp or 707hp one. By making Lou such an odd bird to begin with, and by making it clear again and again that he started out as a man without a moral compass, the movie loses the chance to truly horrify the viewer. Replace Gyllenhaal’s gaunt-faced villain with a single mother trying to feed her children, and then you’d have a real and deeply affecting human change. As it is, this is just a guy acting crazy from the very first scene to the very last cut. So it’s perhaps not a truly great film. Yet when the SRT-8 catches a hard shift to third through a red-lit intersection, you won’t particularly care. This is a deeply voyeuristic film on the surface and underneath. Enjoy the ride.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Marcelo de Vasconcellos Marcelo de Vasconcellos on Nov 06, 2014

    What amazes me in American car movies is the extraordinary low limits of all cars. They all seem one curve away from capsizing, :). On a more serious note, there must of been any number of cars that could pull away from those Panther bodies. In that light, a Challenger would surely pull away from them. Correct me if I'm wrong, but these Panthers are good at cruising and police issue can run over things. Can they do more?

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    • Scoutdude Scoutdude on Nov 07, 2014

      @ Marcelo, The Police issue cars can take a corner pretty well, but in the US the cops have a saying, you can't outrun a Motorola. Back in the days before cellphones Motorola was *the* police radio manufacturer. Many jurisdictions now have rules that say they must discontinue pursuit if speeds get above a certain point, in certain traffic conditions near a school/park ect. The P71 testing/design criteria is that it can jump curbs, go off road ect. The other reason that depts used to prefer them is their durability. Jump a curb at speed all your wheels will still be on the car and it won't need the front suspension rebuilt. Put 120K or so on them and at least until gas was at $4 per gallon for a number of years they'd have cabbies bidding them up pretty high when they went to auction. @ raph, the big downfall for the Marauder is the axle ratio. It was designed for 4:10 gears in part due to the really tall tires they equipped them with. The bean counters made them put 3.55 gears in them so in reality with the really tall tires the effective gear ratio is as worse than the lesser Panthers with the HPP package. The fact that they nixed the Marauder specific H-pipe so the exhaust gets choked down to the same 2" diameter as the lesser cars, negating most of the benefit of the lower restriction mufflers and larger tail pipes. They also didn't do it any favors with the shift schedule that was designed with CAFE in mind, the converter is the least of the problems. The funny thing is that in the real world the gear ratio doesn't really help the MPG in everyday driving. I've had Panthers with the 2.73, 3.08, 3.27 and 3.55 gears and they all turn in the same MPG in my everyday driving. On the freeway the 3.27 gear car always returned the best MPG. Some of that is likely due to the fact that I live where there are hills and mountains and the 3.27 gears mean that it can stay in OD in situations that have the 3.08 and 2.73 cars downshifting. I do believe that they should have made a Ford Galaxie version as it would likely have sold better and combined they probably could have justified keeping it around longer. You are correct that the 2v 5.4 wouldn't work as it wouldn't go in from the bottom. The 4v 5.4 not only wouldn't have made it though the body drop but it won't clear the HVAC box or brake booster.

  • Kvndoom Kvndoom on Nov 09, 2014

    I enjoyed the film. My fiancee hated it. That was definitely a creepy and dark "human monster" flick. I enjoy those, and I don't give a rat's ass if there's a happy ending or not. The females in my house, of course, want every film to go by the book. I agree with Jack that watching descent into madness can be more fulfilling that starting off with madness. Maybe like "Falling Down."

  • FreedMike Well, here's my roster of car purchases since 1981: Three VWsTwo Mazdas (one being a Mercury Tracer, full disclosure)One AudiOne FordOne BuickOne HondaOne Volvo I think I hear Lee Greenwood in the background... In all seriousness, I'd have bought more American cars had they made more of the kinds of cars I like (smaller, performance-oriented).
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X I'll gladly support the least "woke" and the most Japanese auto company out there.
  • Jmo2 I just got an email from the dealership where I bought my car and it looks like everything has $5k on the hood.
  • Lou_BC I suspect that since the global pandemic, dealerships have preferred to stay with the "if you want it, we will order it" business model. They just need some demo models on hand and some shiny bits to catch the impulse buyer. Profits are higher and risks lower this way.
  • Probert When I hear the word "patriot", I think of entitled hateful whining ignorant traitors to democracy. But hey , meant to say "Pass the salt."