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“If it bleeds, it leads,” is the mantra that best describes our media’s obsessive exploitation of violence, feeding it to an audience hungry to see lots of blood and guts from the comfort of their own living rooms. Taking that slogan far too literally, a lonely sociopath decides to enter the cutthroat world of freelance TV news reporting, only to find himself slowly edging towards the wrong side of the crime tape, in writer-director Dan Gilroy’s debut feature Nightcrawler.
The loner in question is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who adds yet another nutcase to a resume that kicked off fully with Donnie Darko and most recently included the heroes of Prisoners and Enemy – two guys with enough issues to fill a half-dozen psychology textbooks. But here he takes things a step further, transforming into a completely unhinged, modern-day Rupert Pupkin, a man whose rise to stardom is as morally questionable as it is downright addictive.
It’s an acrobatic performance in a movie that constantly oscillates – sometimes impressively and sometimes tediously – between neo-noir and contemporary satire, using Los Angeles as the backdrop for a world whose values have gone completely out of whack. Those elements, along with a near two-hour running time, may make this upcoming Open Road release a tough sell for the general public, though the film will certainly have its fans, while its star should gain even more recognition as one of the most daring actors working in Hollywood today.
First seen beating up a security guard so he can steal a pile of scrap metal, as well as pocket the man’s watch, Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is as ruthless as he is obviously out of his mind. Unable to land a steady job, yet ambitious enough to keep trying, he eventually stumbles across a car accident being filmed by a veteran freelance videographer (Bill Paxton) – one of the “nightcrawlers” of the title – who sells his footage to local TV stations eager for scenes of domestic violence and roadside carnage.
Pawning his bike for a consumer-grade DV cam and police scanner, Louis sets up shop as a one-man news crew hoping to capture something juicy – or rather, something bloody. But in one of several hilariously staged sequences, he’s unable to respect the basic rules of a crime scene, such as: don’t stick your camera in a cop’s face while he’s working, or break into a victim’s house to get some good B-roll.
Louis clearly has no limits, which is what makes him such an outsider, with no friends or family to speak of. Yet it’s also what eventually turns him into one of the best cameramen in town, especially after he starts peddling his wares to Nina (Rene Russo, still sultry at 60), a ruthless local news director who will do anything to get good ratings.
Working from his own screenplay, Gilroy – who wrote The Bourne Legacy (his brother, Tony Gilroy, wrote The Bourne Identity) – has a talent for depicting uneasy characters in queasy situations, and he subjects his hero to all sorts of unsettling moments, mining a couple of them for genuine laughs. This includes a sequence where Louis sits down with a future intern (the excellent Riz Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) for what may be be the worst job interview ever conducted, and another where he takes Nina out on a date, only to blackmail her into sleeping with him in exchange for more primetime coverage.
Yet like his erratic protagonist, Gilroy doesn’t always know when to settle down or call it quits, and the film’s constant shifts of tone can grow tiring, even if the action as a whole never gets boring. And while the narrative picks up again in a third act that features a gruesome home invasion captured live on tape, culminating in a white-knuckle action sequence that was justly applauded at Nightcrawler’s Toronto world premiere, there are too many screws loose here to make for a completely solid picture.
Still, Gyllenhaal does a fantastic job channeling Louis’ outrageous and overwrought personality, whether he’s offering up lame sermons on entrepreneurship or tying his greasy long hair into a knot. It’s a performance that seems to take cues from both Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, although the real reference could be Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man – another character risking his life to capture something deadly on video, well aware of both the danger it entails and the self-aggrandizement that it generates.
For a first-time feature, Nightcrawler benefits from an accomplished technical package, highlighted by sharp widescreen cinematography from Robert Elswit (who’s worked regularly with Paul Thomas Anderson) that captures the L.A. backdrops in an array of bright color, and a score by James Newton Howard that recalls the hypnotic melodies he composed for Michael Mann’s Collateral – another City of Angels noir set during the wee hours of the night, and for which this film feels like a distant, crazy cousin: one whose weapon of choice is the camera itself.
Production company: Bold Films
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
Director, screenwriter: Dan Gilroy
Producers: Michael Litvak, Jake Gyllenhaal, David Lancaster, Jennifer Fox, Tony Gilroy
Executive producers: Gary Michael Walters, Betsy Danbury
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: Kevin Kavanaugh
Costume designer: Amy Westcott
Editor: John Gilroy
Composer: James Newton Howard
Rated R, 117 minutes
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