Led by a nightmarishly effective performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler is a hauntingly beautiful masterpiece.
BY RYAN MILOWICKI
Every so often, a film comes around that feels perfectly etched in time as a relevant, poignant, and fearless commentary on the state of the modern world. For the world of journalism in the 21st century, Nightcrawler is that film, much like Network caustically attacked television in 1976. With the breadth of technology readily available in this day and age, anyone with a camera, a computer, and determination can become a journalist. The implications of that are staggering and frankly frightening, and Nightcrawler parlays these fears into an immensely gripping thriller which left me horrified in a way reserved for only the most effective films.
A current of biting satire courses through the veins of this taut tale, forcing us to realize that the world created by Nightcrawler is one which is based on the very real “marketplace of news” which leads to competition, over-reliance on graphic images, and the use of shock tactics to compel viewers. This is an unapologetic cautionary tale of the moral travesties this journalistic emphasis creates, and I had a pit in my stomach throughout the entirety of the movie.
Set in Los Angeles, Nightcrawler follows the rise of sociopathic Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) from a small-time criminal to a renowned video journalist. While driving one night, Bloom sees a fiery car accident. His morbid curiosity with the blazing wreckage leads him to approach the scene, where he meets a “nightcrawler” (Bill Paxton), a freelance videographer who uses police scanners to beat the major news networks to the scenes of grisly accidents and crimes. After collecting the footage, he immediately calls up a local channel and sells the brief footage for hundreds of dollars. Inspired by this encounter, Bloom buys himself a camcorder and a police scanner, and begins seeking out the most brutal and heinous crime scenes.
Throughout the process, Bloom learns that networks only pay top dollar for specific kinds of footage. Their viewers want to see affluent white victims, in good neighborhoods, with lots of bloody detail. Bloom’s favorite news director (Rene Russo) sums it up best, likening the lead story of the morning news to “a bloody woman running away screaming with her throat cut open.” Eager and more than willing to go to any distances necessary, Bloom eschews ethics and works his way up the ladder by raising the moral stakes with each story he captures on his camera.
Led by an utterly captivating performance by Gyllenhaal, this is a superb work of art. As we’ve seen over the past decade and a half, Jake Gyllenhaal is at his best when he’s playing an absolutely insane person. Lou Bloom is a man of many words (most of which feel like memorized blurbs from self-help sites), and his lines are delivered with a rapid pace and a wide-eyed gaze. Gyllenhaal infuses this character with so many tics and subtle nuances that make him anything but a one-note character. He truly has created a character with no boundaries, mental or physical. When Bloom sees something he wants, he goes after it and pulls no punches. Whether that’s uncomfortably blackmailing a news director, or ignoring the basic human instinct to help a victim, Bloom will stop at nothing to follow his very-detailed career trajectory. Even after his excellent turn in Prisoners last year, I still feel that this is undoubtedly his finest work to date.
What makes me say that is the swirling undercurrents of humor which permeate their way into the film at crucial moments. Some of the laughs come from the matter-of-fact ways in which Lou talks, in the same vein as a Sheldon Cooper type. But most of them for me came as a necessary release of tension. I was in a cold sweat for most of the movie, fearful for what was about to come, or horrified about what I’d just seen. Nervous chuckles are my go-to way to mask my trepidations, and the sheer amount of them I was forced to have throughout highlights just how creepy of an atmosphere there is.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how gorgeous Nightcrawler looks. Director/writer Dan Gilroy creates a vibrant landscape of nighttime Los Angeles which cinematographer Robert Elswit (who also served as DP on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and There Will Be Blood) brilliantly brings to life. A great deal of the film takes place within Bloom’s car, and each sequence feels different from the others with expressive cinematography and an impressive sense of time and space. In lesser hands, a film about reckless journalism like this could have easily rested on its laurels and resorted to found-footage tactics to show the viewers the experience of the cameraman. But, by resisting this temptation, an even more visceral experience is created. In some of the tensest moments, the focal point of the shot becomes the viewfinder through which the characters are observing the action. This creates a sense of presence even more than found footage would, and ramps up the stakes continually.
I haven’t been this genuinely scared by a movie since Requiem For A Dream, and I don’t mean in the way that a horror movie scares you. Rather, the implication of what I saw, and the horrible things the characters in this film did to advance in their professions shook me to the core. Even worse, it’s not far-fetched to wonder if this sort of thing is happening right now in cities across the country. Maybe not to the extent and blatant disregard for morality as Nightcrawler portrays, but certainly with similar ambitions. That is absolutely terrifying, and no CGI monster or jump scare will affect me quite like that. As a cautionary tale and as a beautiful piece of filmmaking, Nightcrawler is one of the year’s finest films, with a high-octane pace which refuses to relent. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is one of the most immersive I’ve seen in quite some time, and his gaunt stare will haunt my thoughts for weeks to come. Quite simply, this is a film that must be seen, and a film that must be discussed. In my opinion, it is the most relevant film of 2014, and one which could easily come to define this era of media production and consumption.
RYAN’s RATING: 4 Stars out of 4