This is cryptic twilight moviemaking of the highest order, and the result is a ferocious film predestined for cult status.
Nighttime vultures circling around the cynical, cruel world of newsworthy accidents and tragedies are depicted with delectably compelling malice in Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, Nightcrawler. Hitting home runs with feature debuts seems to run in the Gilroy family, with older brother Tony’s excellent Michael Clayton coming out of the woodwork in 2007. With his own debut, Dan has channeled the very best from big brother’s repertoire, and written one of the year’s standout screenplays; full of razor-sharp dialogue and nail-biting suspense. But the spoils don’t stop there, because there are two guys who help Gilroy raise Nightcrawler to deliciously deviant levels in the form of leading man Jake Gyllenhaal and Director of Photography Robert Elswitt.
Things kick off in the dead of night, where petty thief and all-around scumbag Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) scavenges the L.A. streets for ways to make a dime. His game is usually to steal and pawn, though he does ask for jobs and a chance to prove himself any chance he gets. One night, while jammed in traffic because of an accident on the highway, he sees freelancer Joe (Bill Paxton) taping the brutal scene, and finds out what “nightcrawlers” like him do. Armed with a police scanner, a camera or two (if there’s an assistant to film different angles), and a vehicle, these people tape crime scenes and sell the footage to whichever news station coughs up the highest pay. Louis is hooked on the spot and proceeds to get into the game himself; pawning a bike for a cheap camcorder and “hiring” bottom feeder Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his intern and GPS navigator.
Louis’ fearsome determination and resolve to be the very best nightcrawler he can be starts to pay dividends when he begins to foster a working relationship with Nina (Rene Russo), news director of a local station and as desperate for ratings as Louis is focused for success. Starting off with petty home invasions and dog attacks, and moving up to heavier crimes, Bloom realizes that he’s finally found his vocation. How far will he go to make sure his videos are the first thing people see in next morning’s breaking news? What lines will Bloom cross, dragging whoever stands in his way, in order to get the best angle? The lines dividing and connecting ethics, morals, and professional conduct don’t just get blurred; they get smeared in blood.
Jake Gyllenhaal has outdone himself here, slithering under the skin of Louis Bloom to create a compelling anti-hero for the ages. As introverted as Travis Bickle, as ambivalent as Patrick Bateman, and as greedy as Gordon Gekko, Gyllenhaal’s Bloom joins the seedy ranks of charismatic anti-heroes who inadvertently glue the viewer in; unsure whether one wants him to succeed or fail, or whether it’s hatred or admiration that draws one to this strange man. Gyllenhaal has been on a roll since 2012’s End Of Watch but Louis Bloom is, without a doubt, his greatest performance. Amusing, menacing, and wacko in more ways than one, the character is Gilroy’s spawn as much as Gyllenhaal’s. Gilroy has made his previous work (Bourne Legacy, Reel Steal and The Fall, most notably) look like child’s play compared to his Nightcrawler screenplay. A dual character study of the modern American entrepreneur and the cutthroat world of contemporary media, Nightcrawler is the apex of the year’s original screenplays; brimming with intelligence, humor, and tension.
Elevating the picture that much further is the exemplary work of master cinematographer Robert Elswitt, regular Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator. Choosing to shoot on film, the establishing shots of L.A. nights haven’t looked this attractive in ages, almost surpassing Michael Mann’s signature visuals. While the film is a little slow in its first act, and before Bloom begins to truly flower, we have Elswitt’s keen eye to nurture our senses and immerse us into the belly of this beast. The supporting cast, lead by an inspired Rene Russo unseen in this form for what feels like decades, and rounded off by the excellent Ahmed and Paxton, almost make Nightcrawler into an ensemble piece, if it wasn’t for Gyllenhaal stealing scene after scene.
Much of the film’s appeal comes from the fact that it’s so many things all at once; a showcase for Gyllenhaal’s evolutionary maturity since the early days of Donnie Darko, a reminder that Rene Russo can act circles around her peers when the material is right, and an astonishing feature debut by Dan Gilroy, who may not direct as seamlessly as he writes, but whose imperfections here are almost too minute to count. This is cryptic twilight moviemaking of the highest order, and the result is a ferocious film predestined for cult status.
Review originally published on 9/24/14