Director: Dan Gilroy
Runtime: 117 minutes
Likable protagonists are overrated. At least, they are in the world of Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler, a psychological thriller set in the world of freelance journalism. Yes, it's much more engaging than it sounds. Featuring Jake Gyllenhaal (or what's left of him after all of that weight loss) in a truly inspired lead performance, Nightcrawler is unsettling proof that we don't need the good guys front and center. We just need the interesting ones, warts and all.
Set in modern Los Angeles, we first meet Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) as he's stealing metal to sell for a few quick bucks. Louis is a bit of a chameleon. He tries anything, and it's instantly his next obsession. Speaking to a grungy looking shopkeeper, he exalts the man's high status, trying to stroke his target's ego all while selling himself as a potential employee. The man is unresponsive, but if Bloom is upset, there's no way of knowing it. Lou Bloom is relentless, yet the quality of his voice casts him as the sort of fellow who soaks up self help seminars as though they've been handed down from heaven.
Fittingly, it doesn't take long until Louis is able to find a potential career field that he can really latch on to. After witness a freelance news crew capture footage of a fiery car crash, Bloom starts to grab some money selling video to one of Los Angeles' local news stations for their 6AM broadcast. His first submission is rough, but when the station's news manager Nina (Rene Russo) gives him some kind words of advice, there's no turning back. With this miniscule token of encouragement, Lou puts out an ad for an assistant. His only response is Rick (Riz Ahmed), but Lou still conducts the interview as though he's hiring for a Fortune 500 company.
Given that Nightcrawler is set in the world of journalism and TV news (albeit its squishy underbelly), the first film that comes to mind is Network. There's some truth to that comparison, with Russo's Nina functioning as older, washed up version of Faye Dunaway's character, along with the film's biting assessments of how easily local news stations can manipulate simple truths into wide reaching hysteria.
But Nightcrawler is much more of a one man show, with a single Machiavellian force at its core. The more apt comparison, especially when looking at the lead characters, would be Gus Van Sant's To Die For, which starred Nicole Kidman as an aspiring anchorwoman with a vicious streak and an uncomfortably forceful desire to appear "professional."
To Die For is the story of a small town falling prey to a manipulator, which Nightcrawler's setting is far more ambitious. Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswitt include a number of beautiful LA sunrises and sunsets, capturing all of the city's sprawling, unrefined beauty. The film opens with a series of post-card ready images, before giving us our violent introduction to Lou. But Gilroy isn't out to subvert LA's image. Instead, he presents Lou's story in tandem with his portrait of the city and the freelance journalism scene. People like Lou Bloom aren't infecting the City of Angels. They're merely working both sides of the city's dual natures.
For Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler is the crown jewel in a string of recent impressive performances. Like Scarlett Johansson (also on fire right now), Gyllenhaal was someone Hollywood tried to make into a traditional "star," and the results were pretty rocky. Moving away from expected leading man roles is the best thing to happen to the actor's career since his performance in Brokeback Mountain. Following Prisoners and Enemy, Nightcrawler is the actor's next (and long overdue) great performance. The actor lost a considerable amount of weight for the role, but his gaunt appearance is an afterthought considering the effort put into the actual performance. Gyllenhaal's nonstop commitment to Lou's persona - even when he shifts from career advice platitudes to thinly veiled threats - is totally gripping to behold. He never has a scene that allows him to coast, which keeps the performance, the film, and the audience, subtly on edge the whole way through.
Gyllenhaal's creepy and darkly funny performance is certainly Nightcrawler's big draw, but Gilroy's work as writer and director ensure that the film is more than just an acting showcase. Gilroy carefully dials up the intensity with each story that Lou and Rick chase. The film's big finale, a nighttime car chase, is exceptionally well done, building off of the cumulative intensity to end Nightcrawler with a bang. And when it comes to the scenes that don't involving dashing around LA, Gilroy switches hands and grabs the viewer in a different, yet equally compelling chokehold. There are no shades of grey in Nightcrawler, only shades of black with barely perceptible differences.