Review: “Nightcrawler”

More of a character study than the crime thriller it promises to be in its marketing, Nightcrawler is one of those films that no doubt will leave viewers conflicted as far as how their feelings about the experience of watching the film. On the one hand, it’s very easy to appreciate the riveting work of Jake Gyllenhaal in the film and just how committed director Dan Gilroy and the whole of the production seem to be in crafting a chillingly believable portrait of the ambition and opportunism-driven world of crime journalism.

On the other hand, however, they may have achieved their objective too well, as there’s very little to like about any of the characters the film follows or the means through which they go about their rather nasty business. There’s simply no pleasure to be found in watching any of this unfold, and thus it’s hard to recommend the film as something fun to experience on a night out at the movies.

Gyllenhaal play Louis Bloom, an out-of-work loner in L.A. who in his desperate search to find a means to make a living stumbles upon a grisly traffic accident scene and the stringers (freelance TV cameramen) who show up at the scene to shoot footage they will later attempt to sell to local TV news stations. Immediately fascinated by their work and thinking he may have a talent for it, he learns everything he needs to know about what stringers do and how they do it online, obtains a police scanner and a camcorder, and sets out to start his new career.

Louis’s eye for graphic shots and his aggressiveness in obtaining those shots offsets his inexperience and relatively poor equipment early on, and his work draws the attention of Nina (Rene Russo), a veteran producer hungry for higher ratings and the better job security that comes with them. Nina’s approach to that end is as pragmatic as it gets — she knows her target audience and knows that what scares them or makes them nervous will also keep them transfixed to their TVs. Her needs match what Louis has to offer, and enable her to at first his odd intensity and utter lack of emotion regarding the content contained in what he’s peddling. A strange partnership is born, one that Louis quickly uses to his advantage as he builds upon his success. He improves his equipment, takes on an assistant (Riz Ahmed) to help him navigate L.A.’s streets in order to reach crime scenes faster, and uses any and all methods to be the first one on the scene to get the shot when bad things happen.

As it turns out, Louis is perfectly suited to thrive in his new chosen career field, not for his keen eye for the “lead shot” or his instinct for what will sell, but for his sheer willingness to do what others won’t to get what he needs, regardless of professional ethics or morality. That clarity of focus, unburdened by sentiment, empathy, or sense of propriety, leads him to very dark places and choices, and those choices lead to, among other things, unexpected victims.

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Again, what stands out first and foremost in Nightcrawler is the captivating performance of Gyllenhaal, whose creepy take on Louis is a far cry from just about everything the talented actor has taken on to date. To start with, he looks as though he lost a significant amount of weight for the role, and this along with wearing his hair slicked back serves to accentuate his already sharp features. He appears starved, like a vulture that hasn’t eaten in too long. Add to that look the intensity of his gaze, the deliberate falseness that informs Louis’s every word and gesture, as though they were memorized and practiced for the sake of dealing with other humans, and the complete lack of emotional connection he shows as he commits one unethical act after another to further his ambitions, and Gyllenhaal presents a compelling model of a sociopath. It’s chilling work that should have the actor’s name buzzing among Oscar handicappers when awards season ramps up in just a few short months.

Writer Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy, The Fall), making directorial debut here, more or less gambles the film’s success on Gyllenhaal, as no other character in the film gets nearly the same amount of development or attention to detail. Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed (Closed Circuit), and Bill Paxton all make the most of what they’re given, with Russo in particular standing out as a facilitator as well as a victim of the cutthroat media world in which her survival is increasingly dependent on her ability to deliver results thanks to her age and gender, but even her character is little more than a compilation of industry archetypes. It’s Louis — his motions, actions and reactions to a Los Angeles shot through a pale yellow filter at night and oversaturated with light during the few moments we see him in daytime hours — that drives everything in the film, including its pace. Because he’s so methodical and calculated in everything he does, that pace can feel as though its plodding at times, but Gyllenhaal and Gilroy imbue Louis’ every act and gesture with meaning and the sense that it’s all leading to something terrible.

It’s that sense of dread that makes Nightcrawler so difficult to take your eyes off of for most of its relatively short running time. Strangely enough, just how the film pays off that dread, with an ending that feels true to real life and like a storytelling cop out at the same time, might be the film’s most prominent weakness. As “realistic” as the final outcome might seem to viewers once the credits roll, it just isn’t very satisfying, and Gilroy might have been better served by crafting a denouement that, while it didn’t match the tone of the rest of the film quite as well, might have left audiences feeling a little better about themselves and what they just experienced while walking out.

But perhaps that was Gilroy’s intent all along — to make viewers of the film feel as though they’d be touched by the dirty business and the carrion feeders who profit from it at the film’s core.

If that’s the case, then he’s certainly successful.

Score: 4 out of 5

Nightcrawler
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, and Bill Paxton. Directed by Dan Gilroy.
Running Time: 117 minutes
Rated R for violence including graphic images, and for language.