Three and a half stars (out of four)
R (violence, including graphic images, language)
In the thriller “Nightcrawler,” Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an exquisitely creepy, career-defining performance. It’s one of those exciting, stand-up-and-take-notice turns that allows you to see an actor in an entirely new light. I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t demand the attention of the Academy when it comes time for this year’s Oscar nominations.
Gyllenhaal has always had an edge to him, a darkness that belies his clean-cut, blue-eyed good looks. He first made an impression in the nightmarish 2001 indie hit “Donnie Darko” and, alongside mainstream fare such as “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Bubble Boy” and “Prince of Persia,” he’s peppered his career with more challenging efforts, including “Brokeback Mountain” and the recent “End of Watch” and “Enemy.”
In last year’s “Prisoners,” he delved into downright freakish territory, playing Detective Loki, a greasy-haired, tattooed cop obsessively dedicated to his job but completely lacking in bedside manner when dealing with the parents of a couple of missing girls. Gyllenhaal’s work was intriguingly unattractive, but the performance was a little too mannered for my taste. The actor poured on the character’s ticks and loner eccentricities a bit too thick.
That’s why Gyllenhaal’s efforts in “Nightcrawler” are so surprising. As Louis Bloom, an Internet-savvy loner who discovers his twisted calling in chasing down bloody late-night crimes for profit, the actor exercises remarkable restraint.
This is a role that could have easily gone over the top and off the rails, but Gyllenhaal nails it. His Bloom is a complete weirdo and also improbably mesmerizing. He’s like a horrific car wreck — skin-crawingly revolting, yet we can’t turn our eyes away from him.
“Nightcrawler” is the debut film of Dan Gilroy, writer of “The Bourne Legacy” and “Real Steel.” He, too, shows admirable restraint, not to mention atmospheric style, in this chilling, often cringe-inducingly funny indictment of America’s fear-mongering, ratings-hungry television media.
We first encounter Louis Bloom applying wire cutters to the chain link fence of a railyard in what appears to be the dead of night. It’s a fitting introduction, for in those first few minutes we are able to surmise that Mr. Bloom is a) a criminal, b) a jittery smooth talker who simultaneously hypnotizes and unnerves his listener, and c) capable of violence.
Bloom has greater aspirations than petty theft, however. After a few ambitious but misguided attempts to obtain gainful employment, he happens upon a car accident on one of L.A.’s many cutthroat freeways. Pulling over to observe, whether out of curiosity or predatory instinct, he sees a couple of news stringers pounce upon the scene with vans and camcorders. He’s instantly hooked.
After finagling his way into a video camera and police scanner of his own, Bloom hits the streets in a naive attempt to capture footage he can sell. His fledgling efforts are awkward — he shows up at the scene of minor infractions and DUI arrests, to the annoyance of the cops — but he’s a determined guy. Before long, he finds his way to the scene of a carjacking, and because he’s willing to get closer than the other stringers, grabs just the kind of graphic images craved by veteran TV news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo).
Nina explains her station’s “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy to Bloom, who takes her words to heart. Before long, he’s memorized all the police codes, hired an unsuspecting intern/pawn (Riz Ahmed) and starts showing up at crime scenes before the cops. And if he has to stage and manipulate the situation to get better play, so be it. He’s a man without a single moral qualm, eerily quick to adapt to the nocturnal needs of L.A.’s ethically flexible media.
“Nightcrawler” takes place almost entirely after the sun has set. Gilroy plumbs the grainy depths of a darkened Los Angeles with such assuredness, the film fits comfortably into the great panoply of flicks exploring L.A. by streetlight, which includes such movies as “Collateral” and “Drive.”
This seedy, suburban nightmare-scape serves as a hunting ground for Gyllenhaal’s prowling lowlife. The actor has said in interviews his performance was inspired by the coyotes who slink through the L.A. hills. You can see the animal instinct flickering behind Bloom’s buggy eyes — it’s crazy how strange Gyllenhaal looks after simply dropping a few pounds.
In the film’s best scene, Bloom lets Nina in on his business strategies — mostly composed of cliches learned from Internet “research.” Gyllenhaal’s enthusiasm, coupled with the character’s oddly clipped delivery, is ickily infectious.
Despite the movie’s preoccupation with violent crime, Bloom’s burgeoning relationship with Nina is perhaps the queasiest element of “Nightcrawler.” Russo is great as a desperate, aging news veteran with terrible taste in eye shadow and an insatiable appetite for gory headlines designed to terrify her network’s rich, white viewers.
When it comes to satirizing the media’s moral vacuousness, Gilroy doesn’t pull any punches. Bizarrely, a handful of actual TV news personalities deigned to participate in the film, despite its unsavory insinuations about their vocation. In one scene, real-life anchors deliver hilariously macabre color commentary for the aftermath of a home invasion. Did they read the script before they showed up to set?
Much of what occurs in “Nightcrawler” strains credulity, but Gyllenhaal’s gripping descent into misanthropy keeps us from checking out. Bloom may be a larger-than-life boogie man but we recognize him.
He’s a monster of our own making, a scavenger who feeds on a city’s narcissism and paranoia.