Saturday, December 20, 2014
Director: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Ann Cusack, Kevin Rahm
Running Time: 117 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
"I'd like to think if you're seeing me, you're having the worst day of your life."
Dan Gilroy's satirical crime thriller Nightcrawler is one of the better recent examples of preserving a central character's aura of mystery by letting the actor fill in the blanks. When an obsessive, ambitious L.A. drifter stumbles into the adrenaline-fueled world of recording violent crimes and accidents to sell to local news stations, it's obvious early on he isn't the type who "stumbles" into anything. He sets his sights. With a topic that's both curiously timeless and dated at the same time, it could have been a conventional thriller if not for the fact our protagonist becomes the antagonist, just as depraved as the criminals he furiously covets footage of, if not more so. While I often questioned the believability of events unfolding, the actor carrying them never strikes a false note. It's because of Jake Gyllenhaal's transformative performance that we never know where this guy's coming from or where his head's at. But wherever it is, it's a frightening place.
When resourceful but unemployed Louis Bloom's (Gyllenhaal) spontaneous plan to land a job at an L.A. construction site falls through when the manager discovers he's a thief, he realizes it's time to change course. After witnessing a film crew shooting footage of a horrific car crash, he gets the idea to become a "Nightcrawler," obtaining a camcorder and radio scanner to follow the action and shop the footage to the highest bidding local news station. After impressing KWLA News Director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) with his footage of a carjacking, he picks her brain for advice and hires a young assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed), who's desperate enough for cash he'll do anything.
Nina's guidelines are simple: Record violent crimes in affluent neighborhoods. And get there first. As her ratings rise and Lou's fledgling business gathers steam, he gets more directly involved in the action, using illegal tactics to get the footage and manipulating events to advance his career. A lesser film would be about whether he's willing to sell his soul for a future in broadcast journalism. But this character has no soul, and just as he obsessively captures these crime scenes, we compulsively anticipate how far he's willing to push the envelope.
Initially, it's hard not to at least begrudgingly respect Lou's tenacity and ambition, even if his philosophies seem to have sprouted from reading too many Donald Trump and Tony Robbins books. Reciting verbiage from business manuals and seminars to every prospective employer (or hapless employee) he encounters in a robotic, mechanical tone, He's very smart and knows it, but there's also something wrong with him, the extent of which doesn't completely reveal itself until someone finally gives him praise, and a chance to prove himself.
Journalistic integrity isn't high on Nina's priority list, so she's naturally intrigued by the newcomer's inspired work, which only feeds her cutthroat pursuit of ratings at any cost. "If it bleeds, it leads." It's a motto that would likely disgust her colleague, Frank Kruse (Kevin Rahm), the lone vice of moral reason in the newsroom. While Nina's almost equally bad with people in a different way, Lou's the full-blown sociopath, especially during his disturbing diner "interview" with his future assistant, whose insecurity and desperation he sniffs out like a blood hound.
What's so interesting about Lou is that the more professional he tries to act, the crazier he comes off, and the scarier he gets. With Rick as his navigator, he races from one crime scene to to the next with camcorder in hand, hoping to beat out competitors like Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), who want him on his team. But Lou's building an enterprise and unpolished hustlers don't figure into his plans and he's definitely not interested in sharing a piece of the pie. When he starts arriving at crime scenes prior to police and tampering with evidence, the possibility exists his moral problems could become legal ones.
Whether this is the best performance of Jake Gyllenhaal's career thus far is debatable, but it's definitely up there and easily the most deranged character he's had an opportunity to tackle. At first, Lou seems a little odd and mischievous. Then, a little weird. It isn't long before we're really worried about the guy, until realizing our concern should really be for anyone who gets near him, either personally or professionally. He's what author Bret Easton Ellis would call an "emotional vampire," sucking the humanity out of everyone he encounters, with maybe one exception, and only because she seems to have so little left. The most extreme, obvious comparison is American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, even if Gyllenhaal's physical transformation (a loss of over twenty pounds) more closely resembles Christian Bale's in The Machinist. For the first time, Gyllenhaal scared me, both in appearance and demeanor. Doing that while making the character not completely unlikable, and even at points charming and charismatic, would seem to be a herculean task for any actor.
He has the ideal co-star in Rene Russo, who's given her meatiest, most complex role in ages. You can tell Nina's been through the ringer, perhaps having to prove herself in a man's world for too long, turning her bitter and hard-edged. Russo's careful not to make that the cliche it could have been and screenwriter and first-time director Gilroy treads carefully over their relationship. If anyone can respect Lou's ruthless ambition it's her, and while it's tempting to say she doesn't even know what she's gotten into, she completely does and loves it. Refreshingly, neither have a conscience and are drawn as entertainingly deplorable as possible. But the real star might be DP Robert Elswit's rendering of a decaying, grungy nighttime L.A. bathed in neon lights that's so distinctive it feels like the lost film in Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself. James Newton Howard's score hums over the emotionally vacant, sometimes brutal action, creating a jarring contradiction.
Even within the boundaries of media satire and social commentary it's intended, some of the events that occur while marching toward it's big car chase finale are almost to preposterous to take seriously at all, if we're even expected to. It's difficult to fathom that Lou could go as far as he does without being arrested or killed or that in this overly PC media age any news director wouldn't be immediately canned attempting to air what she does. This begs the question of exactly when these events are supposed to be taking place since I wavered on that issue at various points. It's easy to reimagine a far lesser version of this as one of those '90's direct-to-DVD thrillers. Luckily, it's not that at all and everyone involved skillfully sells it. Like Lou, we know what we're watching a crash, but it's impossible to turn away.