Anchored by Jake Gyllenhaal’s chilling performance, Nightcrawler is an effective neo-noir thriller that provides insightful (though troubling) social commentary on the side.
Nightcrawler stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a well-spoken and knowledgable (yet unsettling) young man living in contemporary Los Angeles, doggedly seeking work of any kind. One night, Louis stumbles into the (under)world of “nightcrawling” – a nocturnal profession where freelance video crews roam the city, striving to be the first to shoot up-close-and-personal footage of crime scenes, vehicle collisions, and other assorted tragedies – material which can then be sold to the highest bidding local news station for a healthy price.
Louis proves to have the perfect temperament necessary to thrive at this unscrupulous occupation, as he quickly secures both a loyal customer in local TV news producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo) and a low-cost assistant in the essentially homeless Rick (Riz Ahmed). However, as Louis proves more and more successful in his newfound career, he threatens to cross the line between observer and participant in the atrocities that he records on camera.
The full-length writing/directing debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy (Two for the Money, The Bourne Legacy), Nightcrawler can be summarized as the There Will Be Blood of slick L.A. based neo-noir dramatic thrillers. It’s a sharp critique of contemporary social issues (such as media exploitation entertainment and the demand for it) that is then presented as a dark and disturbing tale about a ghoulish protagonist who prospers by abandoning any moral qualms he might have with the corrupt system that props him up.
Louis Bloom, like Daniel Plainview, is a misanthrope who hides behind a hollow smile and articulate demeanor, tricking many of those around him into believing that his uncompromising work ethic and go-getter attitude are to be admired. Jake Gyllenhaal dropped a good deal of weight to play Bloom, but it’s his ability to maintain dead-eyed enthusiasm and social disconnect (Louis is like a neck beard who has learned how to make himself presentable to the real world) that makes his performance so captivating and unnerving; an awards worthy turn, for sure. Anchored by Jake Gyllenhaal’s chilling performance, Nightcrawler is an effective neo-noir thriller that provides insightful (though troubling) social commentary on the side.
Gilroy’s vision of modern-day Los Angeles isn’t quite as visually sophisticated as those presented in such films as Collateral and Drive. However, Gilroy as director and his cinematographer Robert Elswit (who won an Oscar for his work on There Will Be Blood as it were) create an eery vision of night-time Los Angeles through shots of vacant streets, nameless victims and criminals, and low-lifes “crawling” about under the cover of the full moon. It’s a setting ripe with visual symbolism and sets the mood for what, in many ways, is a true horror (make that horrifying) movie.
Gilroy’s Nightcrawler screenplay is solid, though it has some problems. The first two-thirds of the film play out as a character-driven thriller, before it shifts gears somewhat with a third act that – although it does build on top of the narrative material that came before – doesn’t feel quite as connected as what preceded it; in fact, the final third of the movie could almost be a short film by itself. On the one hand, this ends up giving Bloom’s personal journey more of an arc; thing is, by the time the movie reaches that point, there’s no real suspense surrounding the question of how far Bloom will go. Thus, his predictable actions prevent Nightcrawler from making as strong a statement as was intended with its ending.
Gyllenhaal’s central performance, as indicated before, helps carry Nightcrawler though the rough patches it hits along the way to its final destination. Rene Russo has far less screen time as Nina Romina, but she proves to have strong onscreen chemistry with Gyllenhaal and matches his intensity, bringing the right mix of tenacity and weariness to the role of an experienced TV news producer who knows all too well how the game is played (in terms of gender politics and/or appealing to the public).
Riz Ahmed (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) is relatable in his scenes as Louis’ assistant Rick – a character who, in essence, represents Bloom’s ability to express compassion and real empathy for others. Meanwhile, Bill Paxton is fittingly slimy during the scenes where he shows up as Joe Loder, Louis’ main competition, and such characters actors as Kevin Rahm (Mad Men) and Michael Hyatt (The Wire, The Kill Point) make the most of their brief appearances in the film, serving as the voices of reason that try (and fail) to slowdown and/or stop Louis as he rises up the ranks.
Nightcrawler ultimately proves to be a riveting and disturbing tale set against the backdrop of night-time L.A., though it would be a stretch to call this film an enjoyable and easy one to watch (you certainly need to be in the right mood for this tale). Gilroy manages to impress as he sticks the landing with his first-time in the director’s chair, but it’s Gyllenhaal’s flat-out spooky performance – the latest in a string of memorable and quirky character turns offered by the actor recently – that elevates Nightcrawler into something of a must-see for movie buffs.
Nightcrawler is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 117 minutes long and is Rated R for violence including graphic images, and for language.