Dir: Dan Gilroy
A slimmed down Jake Gyllenhaal astounds as a guileful freelance crime journalist in the morbid and hilarious L.A. Noir Nightcrawler. Writer and first time director Dan Gilroy brings audiences into the underground world of “if it bleeds it leads” nightcrawlers – men and women who chase violent crime scenes in the hopes of scoring gory footage to auction off to local news stations. Ostensibly about this profession, the film is more a bleak analysis of the current U.S. job market laced with pitch-black humour and media criticism. While some of the situations are unbelievable and some of the targets well-trodden (Network ably eviscerated TV news nearly 40 years ago), Gyllenhaal wows in a modern noir that highlights a lesser-known L.A. with sumptuous cinematography and a boldly nihilistic worldview.
Gyllenhaal’s always had expressive eyes, but highlighted by his dramatic weight loss for the role they become preternaturally large here. They also give off the impression that all is not right in the mind of his character. Introduced as a literal scavenger, Gyllenhaal portrays Louis Bloom – a grinning product of online self-help videos who lacks anything resembling a moral centre. Gyllenhall has had a remarkable string of performances recently (End of Watch, Prisoners, Enemy), but he outdoes himself here in a showy performance that is nonetheless wholly transfixing. His Louis is frightening for both his actions and the implication that people like this may exist out there, scouring rail yards and freeways in search of and contributing to the darkest human impulses. A kneejerk reaction may be to peg Louis as being “On The Spectrum” (like Sheldon Cooper or Rainman), but the truth is he’s most likely a sociopath, willing to step over anyone to advance himself.
Louis often recites bland self-help platitudes, and does so in the hopes of scoring a job at a salvage yard, going so far as to offer his services as an unpaid intern. He smiles dutifully but anyone with half a brain can tell that it’s insincere. For prostrating himself to a scrap heap night manager he’s flatly denied a job. The exchange is funny but uncomfortable, exposing the harsh realities of an unstable economy that hasn’t quite recovered from the recession and probably never will. It’s a good thing that Nightcrawler is infused with a healthy amount of humour, because otherwise it’d simply be a horror film about the lack of job security today.
In the first of many unbelievable sequences of events, Louis stumbles upon a fresh crime scene and films the bloody aftermath. He’s able to sell the footage to local TV producer Nina (an increasingly rare performance by Rene Russo) and sets out upon a new and entrepreneurial career path. Nina is, of course, interested in the most graphic and violent footage available to boost her viewership and save her own job. The media criticism seems shopworn, as most people today are savvy enough to know that bad news trumps good in today’s landscape. Louis happily obliges Nina’s needs, easily gaining access to some horrific crime scenes through a lack of scruples and a surplus of dumb luck. A lot of the situations that Louis finds himself ask the audience to suspend a lot of disbelief (he stumbles upon a double murder right after it happens and proceeds to contaminate the crime scene while filming it all, narrowly escaping the approaching authorities) but are still tense and well-staged. In addition to Gyllenhaal’s performance, this examination of a strange sub-culture is a strong selling point for the film (and Bill Paxton shows up!). Nightcrawler also shows off L.A. wonderfully with tactile and lush cinematography.
In fact, this is an L.A. that we may not have seen on film before, or at least not recently. It’s not the usual landmarks we see but rather the forgotten strip malls and late night coffee shops butting up against the hills of Los Angeles; it’s where suburban sprawl meets the unchecked wild. Wolves bound across freeways (shades of Michael Mann’s Collateral here) and constant danger is evoked as man’s true nature is equated to that of a vicious animal. Louis exists at the centre of this moral morass, a man unchecked by recognizable human traits other than ambition. The suggestion is terrifying and grim, but wrapped up in effectively funny dialogue and a stellar performance from Gyllenhaal. The finale reaches a fever pitch, and fans of Fight Club and American Psycho (I place myself squarely in this camp) should find a lot to enjoy here. If you can look past some ludicrous scenarios and embrace the dark heart and sly commentary of Nightcrawler, you’ll find there’s plenty of action to sate your bloodlust.