FRESH POUR: Nightcrawler (2014)

Dir. Dan Gilroy
Open Road Films

From Zodiac’s lonely, shy Robert Graysmith, to End of Watch’s lovably loyal meathead cop, to Prisoners’ tic-filled, troubled Detective Loki, to Enemy’s dual role earlier this year, Jake Gyllenhaal’s made a cottage industry of playing twitchy, intense obsessives in law enforcement or journalism in the past few years. Between his bulging, piercing eyes, soft-spoken inflection, and incredible physical control, I guess Jakey G’s the guy you want poring over news footage, tracking down a perp, or peering inquisitively through a window. In a very basic sense, Nightcrawler sees Gyllenhaal in a very similar kind of character, but the dark joy of the film is in seeing him completely transform into something almost wholly unrecognizable, and yet infinitely compelling.

Nightcrawler, the directorial debut of screenwriter/director Dan Gilroy (brother of Tony, who did The Bourne Legacy), sees Gyllenhaal inhabit the world of Louis Bloom, a gaunt, slimy weirdo thief who is in desperate search for a job. Inspired by a car crash he witnesses, in which freelance cameraman Joe Loder (Bill Paxton, having fun with his role) gets some footage that ends up on the nightly news, Louis is equally inspired to enter the same line of business. With the help of a pawn shop camcorder he gets from stealing a bike, and tricking an even poorer, desperate kid named Rick (Riz Ahmed) into becoming his assistant, Louis launches into the nocturnal world of freelance crime journalism.

The thing everyone’s going to be talking about with Nightcrawler is Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, obviously, and for good reason. Seemingly taking a cue from The Machinist, Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom is a gaunt, alien figure, his chin jutting out even more than usual under the sunglasses that are perpetually on his face. Bloom is at once an enigma and someone we have figured out from the first few scenes; he fully and completely believes in the American Dream, where if you work hard enough, the world will fall at your feet (his mantra is, “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket,” a phrase he only disappointingly uses once). Endlessly resourceful and persistent – traits to which he readily admits – Bloom is a font of endlessly useful tips and tricks for any given industry in which he finds himself – he’s a bit of a autodidact, if you will, soaking up information from textbooks and the Internet, which he then spouts out of his mouth with a clear and forceful tenor that only emphasizes the strangeness of his enthusiasm.

Gyllenhaal, as Bloom, plays each scene as if he were attempting to figure out the secret formula, the magic spell of words that will get him what he wants. Every interaction with another human being is a negotiation with Bloom, a fact which Gyllenhaal largely plays on his sleeve. If he has to go through the motions of a date with Rene Russo’s steely TV producer Nina in order to negotiate exclusive rights to his freelance video footage, he won’t wait five minutes before dropping harsh truths on her to break her spirit and put him in a better negotiating position. His constant deflecting of put-upon Rick’s insistent, pragmatic requests for a raise is done with a slimy exactitude that would make Gordon Gekko proud. It’s a fascinating effect that lends Bloom an uncanniness that leaves both the audience and the characters around him decidedly uncomfortable – even so, it’s impossible to take your eyes off Gyllenhaal’s audaciously confident performance.

The rough-and-tumble world of ‘nightcrawling’ (the film’s slang term for freelance crime journalism) is captured with a Michael Mann-y sleekness by Dan Gilroy, with grainy HD footage and dark, shadowy LA streets that wouldn’t look out of place in Drive or Collateral. Gilroy, like us, is obsessed with Gyllenhaal, daring us to study his face in closeup after closeup as if we can finally crack the code of who this guy really is. James Newton Howard’s Cliff Martinez-esque score also apes Drive in the best ways, a chirpy set of intense electronic cues that perfectly matches Louis’ manic intensity. The film’s pace is tight and breezy like a seedy crime thriller ought to be, as we climb the ladder of success along with Louis in the same way we guiltily rooted for Jordan Belfort to rise to the top in Wolf of Wall Street. The film’s final act (in which Louis and Rick opt to follow the at-large suspects of a multiple shooting Louis captures earlier in the film) is a tremendously tense series of strained negotiations and last-second strategies, chess pieces shifting and moving into place in the finest De Palma tradition.

For all its style and sleekness, Nightcrawler serves as a fascinating actor’s showcase for Gyllenhaal first and foremost – a character study about a socially-stunted, amoral man who just can’t seem to figure people out, and doesn’t really seem to want to. The word ‘nightcrawler’ fits the character of Louis Bloom perfectly; the term conjures up more than just a freelance crime journalist, listening for police scanner chatter and driving up to a crime scene with a consumer-level camera to pawn off footage to a police station for petty cash. Bloom is a bottom-feeder with delusions of grandeur, The underhanded, Machiavellian ways in which he climbs to the top is a disgustingly thrilling case study of the American Dream at work.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved it!

Nightcrawler Movie Drinking Game:
1) Drink whenever you see shots of television antennas
2) Drink any time Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) spouts facts or business strategies as if out of a textbook
3) Drink every time a shot frames events through a camcorder screen
Finish Your Drink When:
Louis Bloom says, “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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