Jake Gyllenhaal delivers without a shadow of a doubt a career best performance as an amoral sociopath drawn into the highly profitable world of freelance journalism in Nightcrawler, the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy (Real Steel, Freejack, The Bourne Legacy). It’s thrilling, darkly comedic subject matter with a few narrative hiccups along the way, but a distinct focus of vision on the part of Gilroy and Gyllenhaal that keeps the tension high and injects a lot of energy into a premise that could have gone south fast.
Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a sunken eyed sociopath who movies away from committing petty crimes to the far more lucrative practice of capturing grisly crime scene footage throughout the overnights and selling it to the highest bidding local news source. Motivated by the desire to run the news and not just deliver it, Bloom never shies away from capturing car crashes and multiple murders without thinking twice about calling the police or telling what he saw. He lives for the shot, speaking in inspirational aphorisms and motivational speeches to those around him. He’s as goal oriented as he is potentially self-destructive.
Gilroy’s story feels like it might have played a little bit better in a post O.J. Simpson debacle version of Los Angeles, but considering the current competition from TMZ for local La-La Land scoops, it works almost as well now. It’s also somehow far-fetched to believe that Bloom – with his cult of personality or not – could actually get as far as he does. A major plot point leading into the third act works on a storytelling level, but feels like it’s conveniently overlooking what actually happens at a crime scene. It feels off-kilter when the rest of the film feels visceral and real.
Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit (who filmed all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films with the exception of The Master), it’s not too far removed from the brightly lit noir of a Grand Theft Auto game or a Michael Mann production, but it’s arguably darker. Gilroy isn’t afraid to get nasty, pushing his unlikable and obstinate character to the edge. Only in Gilroy’s world, Lou becomes such a potent personality that the edge moves as he moves. It’s a harrowing journey filled with gallows humour and featuring possibly the most unredeemable main character in a film since Patrick Bateman.
At the heart of it is Gyllenhaal’s hyper-motivated smooth talker, who can convince and bully his way into any situation with equal amounts of ass kissing and ultimatums. It’s stellar work and an uncomfortable portrayal of a misguided social climber. The physical transformation into something closer to a poltergeist rather than anything human is astonishing, but Gyllenhaal also imbues every line of dialogue with a skewed sense of ethics and humanity. It’s a more difficult role than the one the actor memorably played in Prisoners last year, but also strangely stripped down to even more frightening effect.
It’s also worth noting some excellent supporting performances from Rene Russo (as a morning news producer), Riz Ahmed (as a homeless cameraman-slash-intern), and Bill Paxton (as a braggadocios rival).
It certainly won’t be for everyone, but it’s a heck of a ride for those willing to walk the razor’s edge of sanity.