Jake Gyllenhaal dazzles in “Nightcrawler”
By Thomas Kika
Nov 18, 2014
“Nightcrawler” is, from top to bottom, an incredible piece of filmmaking. Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut is at once an efficient thriller, a merciless satire of the news media, and a deeply unsettling character study, all carried by a transformative performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.
Like all great stories, “Nightcrawler” begins with a strong central character, and lets the story and themes grow out their interactions with the world around them. That character in this case is Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal), a frightfully gaunt young man, desperate to find work in Los Angeles. We meet him as he scavenges for loose bits of metal and wire that he can sell to a local construction firm. Lou hopes this will be the start of a career, or a business partnership, but the foreman sees him for what he really is: a thief.
Lou’s fortunes turn when he has a chance encounter with a team of videographers near a car crash on the freeway. As he learns, these men follow police scanners all night, film the nasty accidents and violent crimes that they stumble upon, and sell the footage to local news stations. This, they say, is known as nightcrawling.
Soon after, Lou is out on the streets of Los Angeles with a new camera, poking his pale nose into all the carnage he can find. He establishes a working relationship with Nina (Rene Russo), a night shift director at a floundering local news station who is just as desperate for juicy footage as Lou is for work, and it is on this relationship that “Nightcrawler” sets the stage for its duet between character study and satire.
There is no mistaking the fact that Lou is a full-on sociopath. He has no friends or family to speak of, spends seemingly his entire day online researching anything and everything he can, and single-mindedly pursues a salary and upward mobility for no apparent reason other than that they must be what everyone else wants. It is not a stretch to view a character like Lou as the modern state of the American Dream: sickly, stretched-thin, and violently obsessed with success for the sake of success.
Most facets of society clearly want nothing to do with someone like him, but modern broadcast news turns out to be exactly the right place for him. In a world where ratings are king and the numbed masses can only be phased by gorier and gorier content, Lou and his messy wares are just what Nina needs to get Los Angeles’s populace tuned in. In 1976, Sidney Lumet’s “Network” posited a speculative news world where hyperbolic and graphic content was cynically doled out to catch the nation’s attention. “Nightcrawler” is working that same basic idea, but today the line between satire and the real world its cross hairs is blurred beyond comprehension, and the film is all the more terrifying and darkly comic because of it.
“Nightcrawler” is an astonishingly confident and assured work, especially given that it is a debut directorial effort. Veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy takes the helm here for the first time, asserting his presence with an amazing cinematic eye, and a hunger to share his ideas. With legendary cinematographer Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood,” “Boogie Nights”), he shoots Los Angeles in near constant darkness, with all the pulsing neon and headlights giving the impression of a cauldron bubbling over with human life. His script is dizzyingly verbose, and not a single scene feels extraneous or tacked-on. Gilroy knows exactly what he wants to say, and knows exactly how to make his message heard.
Jake Gyllenhaal has quietly become one of our most essential performers in the past few years, and Lou Bloom must be seen as his crowning achievement, so far. This is a difficult role, between Gilroy’s dense dialogue and the outright disgusting places the character goes to morally, and Gyllenhaal is never less than completely committed to it. Much was made in the press about his extreme weight-loss in preparation for the role, and the shocking look he exhibits here perfectly augments the character. Being so skinny, his face has become long and sharp, and his eyes almost seem to pop out at you. It is a physically inhuman look that fits such an emotionally inhuman character.
Mention must also be made of Rene Russo as Nina. She brings a stern resolve to the character, who has clearly dealt with Lou’s ilk before and knows when she is being had. Nina is still no match for Lou’s persistence, and Russo perfectly conveys pain and resignation when she cannot help but fold under his pressures, and her own pressures to help the network succeed.
“Nightcrawler” is an utterly engrossing film, even when its content is so determinedly off-putting. Urgent, alive and endlessly topical, it comes at a time when it feels desperately needed. With that in addition to its marvelous craftsmanship, it is easily one of the best films of 2014.