When film historians look back on the career of Jake Gyllenhaal, his portrayal of Lou Bloom will always be a role that is mentioned. He is nothing less than extraordinary in Nightcrawler. Like on the level of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver kind of incredible. Now this is a bold pronouncement because the movie has only been out three days, but I am confident in making this declaration. He’s that good.
Director Dan Gilroy’s drama is surprisingly complex for a first time director. Heretofore he has been a writer (The Fall, Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy) but none of the aforementioned work could’ve prepared me for the flawless execution of his directorial debut. Based on the title and the release date, Nightcrawler sounds like a horror film about killer earthworms that come out at night to feed on human flesh. It’s funny because I didn’t realize how eerily close in spirit that description really was. Lou Bloom is a petty thief and a loser at the moment. But he’s a driven young man who knows how to take advantage of a situation. While out driving at night looking for opportunities to make money, he comes across some cops assisting people trapped in a flaming car on the side of the road. Also at the scene is Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) a man who videos violent incidents at night for profit – sort of an independent agent for local news programs that need footage. Lou gets an idea. With the money he receives from a stolen bike, he buys a camcorder and a police scanner. His latest scheme is born.
The drama achieves so much in the span of 117 minutes. It’s a brilliant meditation on an individual who has always lived on the fringes of society. Jake Gyllenhaal is Oscar worthy as the small-time criminal desperate to make a quick buck with his videos of accidents, fires and other violence. But he is not the only fascinating individual. Riz Ahmed is Rick, a destitute man with no job experience who is hired as his assistant, although exploited is a more apt description. Rick’s story is exceptionally emotional for a mere side character. Things change when Lou meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo, the director’s wife) a TV news director. Russo is memorable in a welcome return to her juiciest part since The Thomas Crown Affair. Her career lives and dies by ratings. Violent crime in wealthy suburban areas is her preference and she makes no bones about it. She is a piece of work. In that capacity the script also serves as a scathing attack on sensationalized tabloid news journalism.
First and foremost, Nightcrawler is a compelling character study. Jake Gyllenhaal manages to embody a thoroughly loathsome but intriguing character that you cannot look away from. He’s got nerve. He talks with a calm reserve even when he’s saying something rather disturbing. He’s creepy to make people uneasy and yet he’s driven by a plucky resourcefulness that‘s somewhat admirable. Although let‘s be clear, he’s insane. They should lock him up and throw away the key. The usually robust actor lost 30 lbs to appear more gaunt in the role. He also grew his hair out into an oily mane. Certainly the execution in his performance is his greatest achievement, but his appearance has the effect of physically transforming him into a completely different person. Perhaps Nightcrawler’s greatest accomplishment is to educate us in the ways of a sociopath. He makes us understand how that quiet, nice boy who was so polite, is capable of such evil.