Nightcrawler (2014, Dan Gilroy) There once was a time when the fastest way to discover a weirdo in your ranks was if, when driving past a horrible accident, someone in the vehicle requested that the car slow down so they could gawk at whatever’s splattered across the roadside. Now, via the burgeoning voyeurism of mainstream media, we’ve all inadvertently been turned into creepster looky-loos, generally accepting salacious soundbites and graphic descriptions of crime scenes as part of the everyday. Hell, it’s a surprise when people reach for their mobiles not to take camera-phone footage of a messy injury but instead to call an ambulance.
Nightcrawler is set in the world of ‘freelance crime journalism’, a fancier term for weirdos who drive around in vans and intercept crime scenes in order to tape on-the-spot footage. After nabbing the most gruesome shots, they sell it all on to the highest bidder, essentially whichever news station ponies up the largest pile of cash. Jake Gyllenhaal’s petty criminal Lou Bloom inadvertently stumbles upon a successful freelance team and decides to get in on the action himself, striking up a complex relationship with fraught local news producer Nina (Rene Russo) in the process, all the while trying to develop his craft and make a name for himself through increasingly disturbed means.
A gnarly, grey-skinned enigma, Lou Bloom is almost an anti-protagonist, absolutely devoid of any semblance of back-story or personal context. Instead his entire personality is cribbed together from self-help books and philosophical mantras, ‘How to Win at Life’-style wisdom that he reels off with ease and charm. He’s also incredibly likeable, so awkwardly funny in his eccentricity that it only makes it that much more shocking when the other shoe drops, and Lou suddenly becomes something more sadistic and nasty, even monstrous.
It is another powerhouse performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, who is in the midst of a far more low-key version of Matthew McConaughey’s career turnaround of late, stepping away from faceless big-budget studio pictures and into weirder, more challenging roles. Existing somewhere in the middle of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver and Christian Bale in American Psycho, Gyllenhaal slides between glimmers of charm and full-blown madness, his skeletal frame only exaggerating his enormous, pleading eyes. He’s sort of like Puss in Boots, if Puss in Boots were a huge freak.
He’s matched by an unusually prominent Rene Russo, essentially ‘the wife’ in every movie in the 1990’s, playing a woman growing old in a hard, butch, ratings-hungry world. There’s a curious sexual frisson to her interaction with Lou, just as repulsed by his ugly definition of courtship as she is seemingly aroused whenever he delivers to her footage of a critically-injured car crash victim or a slaughtered family.
It’s a tonal tightrope that Nightcrawler itself explores throughout, writer/director Dan Gilroy satirising the race-baiting and grisly provocation of modern TV news and critiquing our own thirst for scandal and gore, yet never finger-wagging at us either. Nicely for a film of its type, there’s nothing truly judgmental or arrogant about Nightcrawler; characters are riddled with complexity and refuse to become traditional archetypes, with even Lou’s good-hearted ‘intern’ (a winning Riz Ahmed) allowed more shading than you’d initially expect.
Like the intimidating yet oddly beautiful ‘night-time Los Angeles’ it captures so well, like vintage Michael Mann, Nightcrawler is gritty and unusual, as fun as it is unexpectedly profound. It’s a film that sneaks up on you like a strange figure in a dark alleyway, someone who’ll either charm the pants off of you or alternatively stab you with a bread knife. Or do both at once. It’s that kind of movie.
Originally published in Venue #303 (11/11/14)