Nightcrawler is a pulse-pounding thriller set in the nocturnal underbelly of contemporary Los Angeles. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a driven young man desperate for work who discovers the high-speed world of L.A. crime journalism. Finding a group of freelance camera crews who film crashes, fires, murder and other mayhem, Lou muscles into the cut-throat, dangerous realm of nightcrawling – where each police siren wail equals a possible windfall and victims are converted into dollars and cents. Aided by Rene Russo as Nina, a veteran of the blood-sport that is local TV news, Lou thrives. In the breakneck, ceaseless search for footage, he becomes the star of his own story.
The major news networks – CNN, Fox, MSNBC – certainly gets its fair share of criticism these days, and deservedly so in plenty of cases. But take a look at the state of local news networks today. The way they package news for consumption at set times each day usually results in stories rolling out in a manner that’s sometimes downright schizophrenic. Arson, burglary, politics, civic issues – all back to back over the course of an hour at most. For news networks, it’s a winning formula, because that pulls in a large amount of their audience.
Keeping that in mind helps make the cynical ways that the characters of Nightcrawler act seem all the more plausible. That’s important, because the ways in which Lou Bloom is able to work his way into a local television station seems mind-boggling otherwise. If you were to ask him, Lou would attribute his rise to his work ethic. Lou’s actions, though, go far beyond a solid work ethic. He wants more, and he feels that he has the talent and drive to get what he wants. What he has in ambition, though, far outweighs any concerns for ethical journalism.
Lou’s take-no-prisoners approach is aided by Nina, the producer of a low-rated early morning news program who sees Lou’s footage as a way to save her job. Her approach to work is evident when she tells Bloom to “Think of the newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”
And so we plumb the depths of Lou’s ambitions, which continue to plummet throughout the film. It’s dark and chilling, but impossible to ignore. Dan Gilroy, who handles writing and directing duties, handles the smart and slick dialogue and action well, and he deserves credit for it.
But the key is Gyllenhaal’s performance. Gyllenhaal is both intense and detached in his actions, making him impossible to ignore for both the people he interacts with and the audience. What’s most chilling is the idea that he probably doesn’t see his behavior as abnormal. Gyllenhaal has left his mark for years in different films, but Nightcrawler may be the best work he’s done ever. Even his weight loss for the film is just enough to transform him physically into someone far creepier than Gyllenhaal appears in real life.
At its core, Nightcrawler is a disturbing but brilliant look at the ways in which a man can work to achieve his dreams when left unchecked by basic decency, and how larger institutions can help foster these attitudes. It’s easily one of the best films of the year, and is highly recommended.