Gyllenhaal Glows In Slippery "Nightcrawler"

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is as quietly ominous as the Hollywood nights he inhabits, all cheekbones and greasy shoulder-length hair, slithering aimlessly from point A to point B. He begins Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” as a common thief, peddling chain link fences and performance bicycles. But a random roadside car fire changes his life, cluing him in to the world of freelance crime journalism. With the realization that not all theft is illegal – the pillaging of people’s most private, horrifying moments isn’t just acceptable, it’s in high demand – he’s found his calling. He soon sets off to make a name for himself in a world where names are tellingly reserved for guilty parties.

Longtime screenwriter Dan Gilroy (“The Bourne Legacy”) makes his directorial debut here, and the film is accordingly uneven. “Nightcrawler” is clumsily short on story but bursting with “a-ha” moments that provide its star ample room to play. In lieu of a traditional narrative, Gilroy presents moral boundaries that no remotely ethical journalist would cross. Once Bloom crosses one – tampering with a crime scene for a better shot – the film becomes a game of “how far will he go?”

The answer? Pretty damn far, the character’s sense of self-importance only usurped by his affection for the news director he sells his footage to.

Nina (Rene Russo) is the ruthless newswoman at the helm of the fictional KWLA, not in love with Lou but in love with his talent, prepared to go to the earth’s end in her never-ending battle for ratings. But the end of the earth is a pittance compared to Bloom’s descent into the underworld, driven by an obvious underlying mental disorder. Or is he just that malevolent? We’re long left in the dark as to his endgame, in reluctant awe of his talent for trading in snuff. But Lou and Nina make a fearsome twosome, intertwined by their interest in the suffering of others.

Gyellenhaal continues to be one of the most interesting actors of his generation, attracted to projects fraught with darkness and obsession, no two roles quite alike. Lou Bloom affords the actor a confidence, however misplaced, that he hasn’t dabbled in before, increasingly drunk on power and drunk on himself, as inky black beneath the surface as the Los Angeles Basin he calls home.

Expertly exploiting his newly hired assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed), Lou jumps back and forth between calm and manic, a master manipulator who’s finally found the game he’s best at. Rival reporter Joe (Bill Paxton) crosses him at his own peril, accidentally waking the monster inside.

When our antihero begins introducing himself to witnesses as “TV News” and nobody flinches, it’s quietly the film’s lightbulb moment – and one of its most terrifying. It’s a clever reminder that people mostly believe what they’re told, no matter the source, and that in a society that tells children they can grow up to be whatever they want to be, we remain surprised that some choose to be something repulsive. Choice is a wonderful, terrifying thing, and seeing a character deliberately make that choice – and be so good at something so reprehensible – is as illuminating as it is frightening. By taking the idea to its extreme, the screenplay perverts the American dream in such a way that it nearly circles back around to lucidity.

Lou ultimately graduates from dumpy Toyota Tercel to new Ford Mustang, becoming the rock star he’s always been in his head. From roving reporter to industry commodity, the eponymous nightcrawler finds self-worth in the darkest corners of humanity, diving in headlong. As the character injects himself into the gruesome stories he’s covering, the film finds a higher gear, its third act allowing for a nifty action setpiece full up with nerve-jangling suspense. If the story doesn’t have a particular destination in mind, at least the journey is worthwhile, hiccups aside.

Those hiccups are most prevalent when the filmmaker stops presenting his characters and starts speaking through them. A few offhand comments about the institutional classicism and racism of TV news would be welcome. Long passages of dialogue about its general cynicism aren’t. Lou and Nina are wonderful symbols of the ugliness of their profession – there’s no need for the screenplay to spell it out. Also, Gilroy asks his audience to suspend far too much disbelief, breaking the chains of believability early on and wallowing in the absurd. Not even the most shameless news director in America would run with the kind of gory, obviously unlawfully obtained footage shown here, let alone his or her legal department.

James Newton Howard’s score is equally silly, mirroring Gilroy’s uneven screenplay. Neither is as dark as it wants to be, with the film flip-flopping between satire and mood piece and the soundtrack swerving just as hard. One moment the pic is reverent of its lead character, the next utterly disgusted. As a result, “Nightcrawler” rides squarely on the shoulders of Gyllenhaal’s brilliantly twisted performance, occasionally meeting up with Gilroy’s better storytelling instincts. But they’re mostly on separate wavelengths – the former fully realized, even award-worthy, the latter undercooked. When Louis Bloom finally reveals his thoughts on humanity, the picture at long last comes together, only to peter out in its final moments.

The most frustrating movies are often those that flirt with greatness, as “Nightcrawler” so often does. In playing fast and loose with logic the film undercuts its own social subtext, but its crux – Louis Bloom – is nothing short of compelling. Sinister and upsetting and strangely magnetic – as the best movie monsters are – Gyllenhaal rises above the intermittently pedestrian screenplay, leaving us to forget the idling narrative. But that’s the power of a great performance, and Gilroy deserves credit for affording his star the darkness in which to play.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: October 31, 2014
Studio: Open Road Films
Director: Dan Gilroy
Screenwriter: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed
MPAA Rating: R (for violence including graphic images, and for language)