THE STORY – Los Angeles denizen Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) survives by scavenging and petty theft. He stumbles into a new career as a cameraman and — armed with a camcorder and police scanner — begins nocturnal forays across the city in search of shocking and grisly crimes. When he catches the eye of a shopworn news director (Rene Russo) who welcomes the chance to raise her station’s ratings, Louis goes to increasingly greater lengths to catch the “money shot.”
THE CAST – Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Michael Hyatt & Kevin Rahm
THE TEAM – Dan Gilroy (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 117 Minutes
By Danilo Castro
At a glance, “Nightcrawler” is a classic Hollywood “success story.” It follows a charming protagonist who rises up from humble beginnings and manages to dominate a business through sheer force of will. He outsmarts his competitors, refines his goals, and even strikes up a potential romance with an employer. The catch, of course, is that our charming protagonist is really a cunning sociopath, and his so-called business lives by the sinister mantra: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
This simple narrative twist is what makes “Nightcrawler” such a revelatory thriller. By endowing an antihero with the narrative advantages of a hero, the film invites us to question the culture that would allow him to thrive in the first place. Los Angeles native Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is drawn to the position of freelance photojournalist, or “stringer” because it’s a profession that views amorality as a virtue. News director Nina Romano (Rene Russo) informs Bloom that “graphic” crimes in white, affluent areas are the biggest draw for local networks, so he sets out to capture these crimes at any cost. When pressed for results, however, the ruthless businessman begins to orchestrate crimes of his own.
The script highlights the symbiotic relationship between sensationalist media and the desensitized residents who consume it. Bloom admits to getting most of his social skills from a computer screen, and the repeated cutaways to his apartment show him glued to his television. He’s a product of the 24-hour news cycle. He’s mesmerized the first time his footage airs, yet he barely registers its gruesome content. For him, murder and theft are not so much tragic occurrences as they are prime opportunities to exploit. The film compounds this detached outlook through the unnatural dialogue. Bloom relies on mannered rhetoric and statistics when he speaks, like a self-help guru on a late-night infomercial. He’s incapable of communicating through normal means, which makes his brief forays into “small talk” all the more conspicuous.
Much has been said about Gyllenhaal’s lead performance, and rightfully so. His conviction is so intense that it practically swallows up the rest of the frame and forces us to confront his unflinching gaze. In lesser hands, this intensity could have rendered the character one-dimensional, but Gyllenhaal knows exactly when to calibrate, and where to counteract Bloom’s menace with a physical quirk or awkwardly funny remark. The scene where he coerces Romano into a dinner date is a prime example. He suggests that a refusal will cause him to take his business elsewhere, but when Romano confronts him, he giggles and states, “Well, I didn’t say that.” It’s the sort of counterintuitively charismatic turn one would expect from a young Robert De Niro and its a testament to Gyllenhaal’s efforts that he doesn’t suffer from the comparison. He should have been a frontrunner for Best Actor.
The supporting players manage the difficult task of matching Gyllenhaal’s manic theatrics. Russo brings her trademark sternness to the veteran Romano, and her venomous rant in the editing bay marks the lone instance of a character showing Bloom up. Bill Paxton and Riz Ahmed are similarly compelling as Bloom’s competitor and subordinate, respectively. The former wields his implacable sleaziness in what amounts to a glorified cameo, and the latter stands out as the film’s lone voice of reason. They try to condemn Bloom and his shady dealings, but in yet another clever subversion, they are the ones who fall. Bloom is the rare protagonist who is unaffected by a character arc, and his convictions prove so strong that they force those around him to conform to his amoral worldview.
Dan Gilroy’s direction is remarkably assured for his debut. His stylish depiction of Los Angeles evokes neo-noir masters like Michael Mann and Nicolas Winding Refn, while his fluid melding of handheld and static camerawork helps to keep the viewer in a constant state of disorientation. The car chase that anchors the back end of the film is expertly staged and genuinely shocking, given that no other action scenes precede it. I’d also like to praise cinematographer Robert Elswit, who coats each frame in sickly greens and police siren reds.
That’s not to say that “Nightcrawler” is flawless. The narrative stakes plateau around the three-quarter mark and the breakneck pace of the film begins to drag ever so slightly. The heart-pounding finale helps to get things back on track, but one can’t help but theorize that trimming a few minutes would have made this tense effort even tenser. There are other facets of the film that I could target, like the truncated subplot involving Paxton or the LAPD’s obliviousness to crime-scene tampering, but to do so would be to take a needlessly granular approach.
“Nightcrawler” is simply one of the best crime films of the 2010s. Gilroy’s willingness to play with storytelling tropes resulted in a media satire that continues to be relevant, and Gyllenhaal’s devastating commitment led to one of the most chilling depictions of ambition in recent memory. Neither the film nor his performance will be forgotten anytime soon.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Dan Gilroy evokes classic film noir as a writer and director, while Jake Gyllenhaal gives a staggering, career-defining performance as the eponymous cameraman. The media satire and sensationalist commentary remain troublingly relevant today.
THE BAD – The narrative stakes plateau around the three-quarter mark, and the otherwise tight pacing sags as a result.
THE OSCARS – Best Original Screenplay (Nominated)