Jake Gyllenhaal’s unnerving performance as a sociopath for the ages is the main reason to watch this visually sleek film, which rests somewhere in between a dark nihilistic thriller and biting media satire.
No other film I’ve seen managed to utilise Gyllenhaal’s handsome-but-odd looks in quite the same startling way. His eyes have always been his most distinctive feature, but here they pop like a couple of orbs out of his face, hollowed out by weight loss, giving him a permanently wired and hungry look. Add to that an unblinking stare, a mop of greasy hair, and an artificial manner of an alien who has studied human behaviour but can’t quite pull it off, and you have one memorable onscreen creep.
The creep’s name is Louis Bloom and, as the movie starts, he’s struggling to make a living as a petty thief, stealing and selling scrap metal. One night, he comes across a car crash, and watches a couple of men with cameras record the dramatic rescue of a woman who gets pulled out of the burning car by the policemen. The men are nightcrawlers, freelance cameramen who listen on the police radio and race to capture the grisly night footage that they later sell to the TV stations.
Louis decides to go into the business himself, and manages to film the bloody aftermath of a fatal carjacking. He sells it to a low-rated LA station, and catches the eye of the morning news director, Nina (Rene Russo, who I haven’t seen in a movie since her 90s heyday). She coaches Louis and candidly tells him that the best and most wanted footage is the crimes committed against the affluent white people by the minorities. Louis proves to be exceptionally good at his new chosen profession, what with his ambition, focus, determination, complete lack of empathy and disregard for the law and common decency. Soon he hires an assistant, a desperate young hustler called Rick (Riz Ahmed), who is basically the regular-guy audience stand-in. But just capturing the carnage and mayhem isn’t enough for Louis, and before long he begins to meddle and manufacture for the maximum effect.
As a satire, Nightcrawler is not really saying anything about the moral bankruptcy of the ratings-chasing modern media that films like Network haven’t said before and done so better and sharper, and as a thriller it at times stretches credibility. But it’s still a stylishly made film, and very much worth seeing for Gyllenhaal’s immensely disturbing yet also darkly comical performance alone, even if his character makes you want to take a shower afterwards. With his odd high-pitched voice and speech that seems to consist almost entirely of robotic corporate jargon, Louis seems to view other people as obstacles, irrelevant details, and useful tools. Director Dan Gilroy also gets a stellar supporting turn from Renee Russo, whose Nina turns out to be Louis’ perfect no-soul-mate (that he tries to blackmail into sleeping with him in a, surprise, truly creepy manner). Bill Paxton also pops up as Louis’ competition and a fellow creature of the night.
P.S. It’s pretty hard not to see the extreme real-life news footage differently in the light of this film, and wonder where it came from and what was going through the mind of the person filming it.