Crime Drama

Film Review at Eleven: Nightcrawler

October 31, 2014Ben MK

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Donnie Darkest...

Jake Gyllenhaal has starred in his fair share of dark films, from his breakout role in the mind-bending Donnie Darko, to his most recent turn in the brooding psychological thriller Enemy. But for cold, hard proof of the actor's penchant for playing tortured characters, you need look no further than Nightcrawler, the debut feature from screenwriter-turned-director Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy), which sees Gyllenhaal playing a character whose narcissistic tendencies are sent spiraling out of control, after he's introduced to the seedy, noir underbelly of L.A. crime journalism.


Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a lonely opportunist with no formal education, who resorts to theft and robbery — stealing everything from wristwatches to manhole covers — in order to make a quick buck. However, in his twisted mind, he's a model of hard work and determination, living his life by the self-styled credo, "If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket."

In truth, Lou just wants what everyone else wants — the American dream. And late one night, while driving home on the freeway, he stumbles upon what he believes may be the way to achieve it, when he observes a veteran crime scene stringer (Bill Paxton) filming the mangled aftermath of a fiery, single-vehicle car wreck.

Realizing that there's decent coin to be made from other people's misfortunes, Lou is inspired to get a piece of the action himself. He pawns (what else) a stolen bike for a second-hand camcorder and police scanner — even hiring a gullible "intern" named Rick (Riz Ahmed) to ride shotgun — and soon he's speeding from one bloody crime scene to the next, gathering footage of traffic accidents, home invasions and other so-called urban crimes. Then, before the break of dawn each day, he makes his way to L.A.'s lowest-rated news station, KWLA, where he hocks his gruesome wares to graveyard shift news director Nina (Rene Russo), who's more than willing to sacrifice her ethics for sought-after ratings.

It seems to be the perfect arrangement for everyone involved. That is, until Lou gets greedy. Overzealous, he starts engaging in evidence tampering and begins endangering the lives of those around him, all in the name of securing that perfectly-framed shot for the early morning news.

Of course, the film bears some resonance as a darkly satirical commentary on sensationalism in the media, particularly in its depiction of Nina and Lou's relationship and the way she chooses to spin Lou's footage to the viewing public, pairing it with attention-grabbing headlines like "Carjacking Crime Wave" and "Horror House" that make unrelated crimes seem like a part of something much more sinister.

But it's as a disturbing character study that Nightcrawler truly excels, thanks to Gyllenhaal's unflinching and haunting portrayal of its fast-talking and well-spoken, but decidedly unhinged, lead character — an antihero cut from the same sociopathic cloth as Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman.

Exhibiting a perpetually wide-eyed intensity, the actor (who lost a purported twenty pounds for the role) makes no attempt to court sympathy from filmgoers. Yet, he somehow manages to make Lou's many glaring personality flaws register as weirdly charming. For no matter how much we grow to loathe his motives, we nonetheless identify with them. As a result, it's easy to root for Lou, even though every moral fiber in our bodies may be screaming at us not to. And it's positively thrilling to watch him climb (both literally and figuratively) over body after body to get his way.

The Bottom Line It takes a special kind of actor to pull off a role like Lou Bloom — to be at once repulsive and enthralling — but Gyllenhaal proves himself more than able to surmount the challenge. This is the actor as you've never seen him before, in a performance that is, without question, the darkest and most compelling of his career. For though you may not come away from Nightcrawler endorsing Lou's methods, you definitely can't argue with his devotion — nor will you doubt Gyllenhaal's commitment to playing one of the creepiest characters moviegoers have ever seen.  Ben Mk

* Reviewer's note: Portions of this film review were adapted from my TIFF review of the film, published on September 6th, 2014.

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