Guised as a pulse-pounding crime thriller, Nightcrawler is an unforgiving arraignment of the ratings-crazed media and a striking character study of a magnetic sociopath played by Jake Gyllenhaal in a performance fueled with intensity and malevolence. Gyllenhaal, who lost more than 30 pounds for the film, plays Louis Bloom, a mentally unstable and over-zealous creep whose mantra in life, or at least the pitch he peddles to anyone who’ll listen to him, is “If you want to win the lottery, you have to buy a ticket first.”
When we first meet Louis, he’s beating up a security guard who had just busted him stealing barb wire on a private property. Not satisfied with the petty returns from his con jobs, Louis decides to switch careers when he comes across a cameraman (Bill Paxton) videotaping a scene of a grizzly accident on a freeway one night. Learning that horrific footage garnered from tragic crime scenes and accidents can be sold for large wads of cash to ratings-starved news stations desperate for sensational imagery to accompany their news stories, he quickly gets a camera and a police scanner (both illegally acquired).
Although his entry into the business is initially characterized with conflicts with established “nightcrawlers,” Bloom’s lack of empathy and a moral compass takes him on a fast track to the top of the scumbag chain. Along the way, he manipulates an innocent homeless man named Rick (Riz Ahmed) into his diabolical business. His gory, voyeuristic footage soon makes him the go to guy for Nina (Rene Russo), an ethically-challenged TV news producer at a ratings-starved television station. As Nina becomes more and more dependent on Louis for her sensationalistic news stories, the more we realize how manipulative, slimy and terrifying Louis truly is.
Nightcrawler marks the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy. Like his more prolific writer-director brother Tony (Michael Clayton, the Bourne trilogy), Gilroy got his start with writing screenplays for others including Two for the Money, Real Steel, The Fall and Freejack before branching out on his own with Nightcrawler. Unlike some of his previous work, Gilroy is less interested in the mechanics of plot than about making a statement on the TMZ-era paparazzi and local media. This is a pitch black satire that makes you think about the back-door dealings and shady deals behind the raw footage you see on the evening news. The filmmaker’s vision is immensely aided by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit whose gritty, voyeuristic nighttime photography paints Los Angeles as a seedy metropolis ridden with scum, slowly rotting away from within.
Above all, Nightcrawler belongs to Gyllenhaal. The actor’s fully committed performance holds the film together, even in its most sensational moments. With his gaunt pale face, sunken eyes, protruding cheekbones and disturbingly empty smile, Gyllenhaal ensures that Louis gets under your skin and stays there. Louis Bloom is a psycho for the ages, cut from the same cloth as Daniel Plainview, Alex de Large and the Joker. You know he’s a horrible excuse for a human being but you’re still mesmerized by him and can’t wait to see what he does next. It’s a career-best turn from a hard-working actor who, between last fall’s Prisoners, this spring’s overlooked Enemy, is proving himself as one of the preeminent talents of his generation.
Director: Dan Gilroy
Screenwriter: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Kevin Rahm
Producer: Jennifer Fox, Tony Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak
Running time: 117 minutes
Companies: Open Road Films
Rating: R for violence including graphic images, and for language