November 1, 2014 by Paul Curtin
From Bubble Boy to Brokeback, the consensus on Jake Gyllenhaal‘s acting career over the years will greatly differ depending on just whom you ask. The actor has had his share of less-than-stellar moments and award-winning performances, but most will agree that his latest portrayal of a creepy cameraman in Nightcrawler might just be his best work yet.
Sharing many similarities with 2011’s Drive and other classics like Network and Taxi Driver, Nightcrawler stars Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a sociopath driven to make it in Los Angeles by almost any means necessary. We see this determination right from the very start when the unemployed Lou states his motto, “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket,” as he tries to convince a scrapyard owner to hire him right after having sold said owner stolen scrap metal.
But just simply repeating lines from Lou doesn’t do the character justice, because it’s the way in which Gyllenhaal, who has lost a considerable amount of weight for the role, delivers these “motivational” lines in an oddly disconnected alien manner. It’s obvious that something isn’t quite right with Lou as he stares at other characters with his sunken eyes and without ever blinking, yet you can’t help but feel for the guy whose gaunt features and enthusiasm make him come across as literally hungry for any opportunity that comes his way.
That opportunity presents itself one night when Lou comes across a car crash and witnesses veteran nightcrawler Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) and his crew filming the burning wreck for local TV news. “If it bleeds, it leads,” explains Loder to Lou, who realizes in this moment that this sort of ethically questionable profession is something he can get into rather easily.
After pawning a stolen racing bicycle, Lou buys himself a cheap camcorder, a radio to listen to police frequencies, and gets to work. Never questioning the legality or morality of what he’s doing, the over-determined and under-qualified Lou has a comedic rough start while learning the tricks of the trade. But within no time at all, the persistent Lou’s lack of fear leads to him getting close-up shots that other professionals aren’t and in turn winning over local news producer Nina (Rene Russo in one of her biggest and best acting jobs in years), who is looking for more shocking footage to air during her poorly performing late night broadcast.
Determined to get better footage and perfect his art, Lou begins to expand and hires an unpaid intern, Rick (played by British actor/rapper Riz Ahmed), who lacks motivation and is even more desperate for fast cash. Soon the two begin to run the streets at ridiculous speeds, causing the lines to blur between reporting and producing crime. Just as he exploits victims of a travesty, Lou begins to show a much darker side that involves exploiting everyone he knows as he feeds off his own success and spirals out of control.
This wild ride of emotional highs and lows is a bold beginning for director Dan Gilroy’s first time behind the camera. Gilroy, who wrote the screenplay for The Bourne Legacy, has paced Nightcrawler perfectly by slowly dragging out the uncomfortable moments while frantically speeding through some of this year’s best car chase scenes.
Part of what brings the film to life is its distinct look and feel that Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) has helped Gilroy create. The two have perfectly brought the nocturnal underbelly of contemporary Los Angeles to life by merging digital and film footage together with James Newton Howard’s mostly striking score.
For all the good that can be said about Nightcrawler, it’s hard to understand what Gilroy’s grand vision for the film truly is. Is it a satire of how unethical the media is and will become? Is Gilroy scolding the media for showing graphic content and shaking his finger at us too for not being able to turn away, all while using the same violence as entertainment in his own film? Or is this really just a tale of how far sociopaths are willing to go to further their own success in a struggling economy? Whatever the point, there are still some issues that arise with how much certain characters are able to get away with and that make the film just too unbelievable at times.
Satirical issues aside, Gilroy’s directing debut is thrilling and Gyllenhaal’s performance is phenomenal. Nightcrawler is dark, funny, serious, and a surprisingly scary story that almost perfectly emulates a ride along with a true sociopath. Nightcrawler gets 4.5 out of 5 (Amazing).