To have a goal, to really reach for something, is what most Hollywood movies celebrate. We praise the overachievers, those who are willing to sacrifice anything and everything to achieve greatness. But what happens when the need to become the best gets twisted? What happens when it lays within someone whose heart is cold as ice? Someone with such a singular focus that regard for others is a completely foreign concept? Look at our news today, where murders lead the local broadcasts and cable outlets cut in for hours of “Breaking News” at the first sign of tragedy, and all for the sake of ratings. “If it bleeds, it leads”, is the mantra for Dan Gilroy’s pulse-pounding, evocative thriller Nightcrawler, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal in the boldest performance of his career.
In a lot of ways, Nightcrawler is the culmination of everything Gyllenhaal has been building to since setting off on a different path, one that took him away from mainstream flicks like Prince of Persia, or feeble rom-coms like Love and Other Drugs. As he’s taken on darker roles in films like Prisoners, Enemy, and End of Watch, Gyllenhaal has literally transformed into a completely different actor, and it’s fascinating to watch. In Nightcrawler he plays Louis Bloom, an awkward, somewhat manic low-life criminal looking for work in nocturnal Los Angeles but finding none. Gaunt, sickly, yet energized, Bloom is like Norman Bates given the dangerous energy of a cornered animal. Tired of pawning off stolen goods (for which he’s willing to hurt people to get), he happens upon a burning wreck on the freeway and, rather than offering a hand of help, Louis comes up with a completely self-serving idea. Noticing the throng of freelance journalists at the scene, nightcrawlers, Louis decides this is the career for him.
And of course, he’s right. Nightcrawling rewards those who find and capture the most gruesome, violent footage in order to sell it off to the news stations for easy money. “If it bleeds, it leads”. It’s a profession tailored to the unscrupulous, the psychotic, and it’s pretty clear that Louis fits the bill and probably has for a long time. But he’s also a voracious learner, leeching off the other freelancers like seasoned videographer Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), who doesn’t know quite what to make of this strange but tenacious newcomer. Hiring an equally desperate but innocent homeless man (Riz Ahmed), Louis begins to carve out his niche. It’s a dog-eat-dog gig, and soon Louis is earning top dollar by selling his graphic footage to Nina (Rene Russo), an unscrupulous TV news producer desperate for higher ratings. Her enthusiasm for the death and violence he brings borders on the orgasmic. Why bother asking where he got it from? Part of the thrill of Nightcrawler is watching the power struggle between the two; their relationship going from professional to slightly erotic to totally creepy.
What starts out like a darkly comic look at one man’s climb up the greasy ladder of trash journalism slowly unfolds into something more. It takes a little while for writer/director Dan Gilroy to get his footing, but once things are set into motion Nightcrawler is simply enthralling. As a twisted look at the corrosive state of modern journalism, the film stands on par with Network and Broadcast News, while offering Gyllenhaal the kind of iconic role people will be talking about for years. Gilroy’s understanding of the newsroom atmosphere is a little suspect, and let’s face it 90% of the stuff Louis gets on air would never make it through the door. But it works in the context of the thriller Gilroy is crafting, one that forces us to take at face value some rather extraordinary circumstances. And yet we’re so engrossed by the ever-increasing stakes that we’re willing to along for the ride, which turns out to be completely worth it.
It can’t be understated just how good Gyllenhaal is here, clearly delivering the best work of his career. But it’s not just him deserving of praise. Russo gets the kind of juicy role women of her age don’t get often enough anymore, and even if it’s only because her husband is the director she doesn’t waste the opportunity. Watching the charismatic Ahmed tone it down to play Louis’ indecisive and sappy partner takes a little getting used to, and every scene that features Paxton is a treat. Their performances are bolstered by the gorgeous cinematography by Robert Elswit, whose seedy Los Angeles we’ve seen previously in the works of Paul Thomas Anderson. Gilroy plunges us into a slimy, sleazy morass where someone like Louis Bloom can take root, and it’s a place that should look eerily, scarily familiar. Much like its demented protagonist, Nightcrawler isn’t afraid to cross the line to keep us in its grip.