It should not be a surprise that Jake Gyllenhaal has turned in a performance of this quality, given the consistency he has achieved throughout his acting career to date and his penchant for seeking out unusual stories, up-and-coming directors and interesting roles. His Lou Bloom – a petty thief turned freelance news cameraman who is as ruthless and determined as he is morally and ethically bankrupt – is a memorable and repellent sociopath, and Gyllenhaal’s work here will probably be described as ‘iconic’ in the future. It reminded me at times of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle – an angry outburst in front of a bathroom mirror suggests that writer-director Dan Gilroy also makes the connection between the two characters – while Nightcrawler more generally recalls the early-hours otherworldliness of Taxi Driver and another Martin Scorsese / Paul Schraeder collaboration, Bringing Out The Dead.
There’s a powerful creepiness to Bloom that completely dominates this picture. His appearance is as ghoulish as his intrusive camera footage, the latter the product of his unflinching persistence at freshly-minted crime scenes: all close-ups of bullet wounds, dying faces, crushed car crash bodies and other grisly sights. Gyllenhaal lost 30lb for the part, leaving him with a haunted, skeletal look that accentuates his big doe eyes and leaves him looking like Andy Kaufman playing the Grim Reaper. Though not quite as emaciated, his thin frame and wired demeanour also bring to mind the insomniac Trevor Reznik, as played by Christian Bale in The Machinist. The pale-skinned Bloom also looks like he is starved of the vitamins provided by fruit, vegetables and direct sunlight, spending his days researching online and his nights out and about instead of enjoying the California weather.
The performance, however, isn’t just about the appearance: Gyllenhaal’s delivery, gestures and reactions all add to the character’s considerable oddness, as does Gilroy’s penchant for having the character recycle lines from self-help books and online business courses. At the beginning he is a small-time (but apparently violent) criminal, mainly operating through the night as he robs and sells anything from scrap metal to watches and bicycles. He is, however, keen to find employment, but his persistence alone is unsettling – an appeal to a scrap yard manager for gainful employment ends with Bloom being told that his status as a thief renders him unemployable, a point which he accepts with a brief, strange laugh that suggests some recognition of his failings. By chance he drives past a recent accident scene and becomes instantly fascinated by the actions of and footage obtained by a news cameraman named Joe Loder (Bill Paxton): to Bloom it looks heroic, and instantly he sees a way to bring a new sense of purpose into his life. After selling stolen goods he is able to purchase a cheap camera and police scanner and sets about finding footage of his own, picking up the basics fast. ‘I’m a quick learner’ Bloom states as a thinly-veiled warning to TV news producer Nina (Rene Russo), who is happy to buy his shocking, lurid captures while batting away the ethical and legal concerns of her colleague Frank (Kevin Rahm).
Bloom sells more ratings-bumping footage to the TV network, and upgrades his car (to a Dodge Challenger) and equipment with the proceeds; he also takes on a desperate, low-paid assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed), who he exploits. In order to increase the ‘quality’ of the material, and therefore his pay and his profile, Bloom begins to tamper with crime scenes: first shifting pictures of a family on a fridge so that they appear closer to some bullet holes and later arriving at a crash scene before the rescue services have been able to respond and moving a body for a better shot. At this point it is apparent that he has no moral code, no sense of ethical responsibilities, and no interest in the welfare of the victims of the crimes and accidents he chases across the city at night. After a while it also becomes clear that anyone who gets in Bloom’s way is going to be in serious trouble.
The character’s relationship with Nina is absolutely fascinating, and Russo’s supporting turn is very good. In one gripping scene, after pressuring the producer into a date, Bloom proceeds to try and blackmail her into the sack while they have dinner. Understandably she appears repulsed at first, but he is remarkably astute, and the film later hints that his methods have been successful without ever showing their relationship being consummated. Bloom approaches the subject of sex as if it’s just another business transaction, and he employs the same techniques with Nina that he uses to negotiate over the sale of his footage or Rick’s wages. Gradually the dynamic between Lou and Nina changes: at first when they discuss the price for Bloom’s footage Nina is firmly in charge and Bloom, who knows nothing about the industry, has no power and holds no cards; later on this is flipped, and he establishes a sinister kind of dominance, using information he finds out about Nina’s employment contract to leverage better terms for himself and more money. Despite the fact her position gets worse each time Nina accedes to Lou’s demands there is a suggestion that it turns her on to be beaten in negotiations, even though there’s a more publicly-stated reason for obtaining the footage (it increases the network’s ratings). Gradually it becomes apparent that Nina’s own moral compass is almost as skewed as Bloom’s.
Nightcrawler echoes the criticism of the media in Sidney Lumet’s Network, where anything goes in the quest for viewers. The buck stops with ratings and the channel’s interests come first, much to the irritation of the police and rescue services, who physically must move Bloom out the way at first before his obstructions become even more cunning and dangerous later on. What is apparent here is that he only has his own self-interest at heart. After arriving first at one murder scene the detestable Bloom films a number of dead bodies before it transpires, later on, that there was a survivor inside the house: perhaps this person didn’t attract Bloom as it would have ruined his video footage, or perhaps the information is revealed to show that Bloom simply doesn’t care whether these strangers live or die. Information about his character is gradually drip-fed to reveal a man that is completely lacking in remorse and compassion.
The beautifully-lit shots of LA by night by Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit recall his earlier work on Magnolia as well as Newton Thomas Sigel’s photography on Drive, and add considerably to the film’s overall stylishness. Dan Gilroy’s screenplay is fresh and clever, while his direction is sure: the performances of the cast are excellent, the tempo is well-judged and the decision to occasionally slip into the visual lexicon of early 70’s road movies like Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop lends his film an air of American cool. My only issue with his story – and my main problem with the film, in fact – is a misjudged and unnecessary coda that offers a kind of forced resolution to the story (although at least the final line of the film is in keeping with the overall creepiness). Other than that I do not have much criticism to offer: if I was feeling churlish I might add that it’s pretty obvious that all the supporting characters exist simply to highlight Bloom’s sociopathy, but they are still interesting enough despite the fact. This is a fantastic movie, and one of the year’s best by a country mile: dark, unsettling, gripping and with a point to make. Gyllenhaal dallied with summer blockbusters a few years ago, but throughout his career he has been consistently impressive when taking on challenging roles. For me this depiction of a well-written sociopath has elevated him even further, a leap forward by a prodigious talent, and a career high point to date. The performance gets the film it deserves, and vice versa.
Directed by: Dan Gilroy
Written by: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
Running Time: 117 minutes