In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal looks like the creepy guy you move away from at a bar (to borrow a line from John Waters). With his hollowed-out eyes, and with his stringy, matted, unkempt hair (sporting a little top knot serving as the cherry on top of the sociopath hairdo sundae), Jake Gyllenhaal gives a performance you never imagined he could give. Nightcrawler will surely register as a noteworthy moment in his career, although it would be a mistake to elevate Gyllenhaal as a “serious actor” simply because he turns creepy. In my mind, he already was a serious actor, capable of real feeling and able to elicit genuine empathy from the audience. But Jake Gyllenhaal must have been looking for something different, something to counter his quasi-typecasting as the perpetual boy scout. So, he takes a risk with Nightcrawler and goes against one of his best, most natural gifts—his goofy, amiable charm—and zeroes in on one of his others, that quiet, invisible-to-the-world-around-him quality. Admittedly, in the past his invisibility has made him blend into scenes, so that we’re more likely to notice the other actors. But it’s also one of the reasons I like him as a performer. Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t constantly “doing”, the way that some actors are.
To wit, David Fincher’s 2007 true crime opus Zodiac, in which other more noticeable actors like Robert Downey Jr. jockey for the spotlight and steal the show; Gyllenhaal, as the humble cartoonist who obsessively takes on the Zodiac Killer, appears quiet and persistent. He’s compelling without demanding our undivided attention, so his may not be the face or the voice or the character we remember when we think back upon the movie.
There’s always a touch of cynicism in the air when actors try something different, or when they go ugly for cinema. Who would have imagined that this boyishly handsome actor could look so freaking creepy? Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom performance in Nightcrawler feels totally authentic, an unexpected yet natural progression of his acting abilities.
Nightcrawler is about a raving sociopath who goes from one money-making scheme to another. In the beginning, we see him in the dead of night stealing copper wire and other supplies from a construction site and fatally choking a suspicious security guard without hesitation. Thankfully, Nightcrawler isn’t a movie about serial killing, which would have made it far less worthwhile. But it certainly dwells in a netherworld of seedy characters who exist in perpetual darkness. But unlike the unwatchable American Psycho, the people in Nightcrawler aren’t living in a pretend world of good manners by day, only to go out hacking up unsuspecting victims by night. There’s no artifice here, just a portrait of a twisted man who learns how to make a living with his dead conscience in an equally twisted mileau: the world of local news media.
The inexorable Louis Bloom doesn’t necessarily need to kill people to get his jollies. (Most of the violence on film is recorded by Louis, not instigated by him.) He finds an outlet for his darker urges when he buys a camera and a police radio and begins racing to crime scenes and traffic collisions, filming as much as possible and then selling the footage to a Los Angeles news producer (played with real moxie by Rene Russo, all dolled up and imposing in probably one of her finest portrayals).
As Louis Bloom descends into the carnage of his newfound career, he finds ways of keeping an edge over the competition, even if it means manipulating a crime scene or withholding evidence from the police in order to bolster his own success. And the gorier the better, according to the demands of shock media. If the news producer can take Bloom’s disturbing footage and create a story that will sell, she’s all for it, journalistic ethics and integrity be damned. That’s where Nightcrawler aims all its arrows. It shows us what we already know: how vile our news media system can be. It’s disturbing to imagine that our media organizations might have created a system that depends upon our ids, or that the Louis Blooms of the world might be enticed to supply the carnage, conscience-free.
I didn’t love Nightcrawler. At times I felt cold to it, disconnected. But I liked it a lot, and there were several truly outstanding sequences that make it worth seeing. There’s very little to temper the id of this film, except in the case of Bloom’s unassuming sidekick (Riz Ahmed), who slowly begins to question Bloom’s methodology. And I don’t think I need to see it again. But the appeal of Nightcrawler, which is admittedly a fascinating, well-made film, is that it’s riddled with bad people who don’t care that they’re bad. They don’t even try to defend themselves. They don’t have crises of conscience. They just want what they want, and they’ll do anything to get it.
Written and directed by Don Gilroy. With Bill Paxton and Ann Cusack.