“Nightcrawler” is the directorial debut for Dan Gilroy and I have to say it’s a very compelling one. But it’s not like Gilroy is a stranger to the business. He has a handful of co-writing credits on his resume. His brother Tony has been writing screenplays since 1992 and his directorial debut was the Oscar nominated “Michael Clayton”. Also Dan has been married to actress (and one of the stars of this film) Rene Russo for 22 years. So Dan Gilroy has been around the movie business for a while.
“Nightcrawler” is all his. In addition to directing the picture he also wrote the story which takes a look at the sleazy underbelly of freelance crime scene videographers. Jake Gyllenhaal stars in the film and he continues to impress me. It has taken me a while to come around to him as an actor, but a string of really strong performances has convinced me of his talents. “Nightcrawler” may give us the best Gyllenhaal performance to date.
Gyllenhaal dropped thirty pounds for the part of the unassuming Lou Bloom, an out of work eccentric living in Los Angeles. The very first scene is telling and gives us a good introduction to this character. A security guard catches Lou stealing metal from a construction yard. Lou jumps him, steals his watch, and escapes. He sells the stolen metal to a scrap yard and asks for a job. The manager pointedly tells him “I’m not hiring a thief”. Within these first few minutes Gilroy gives us several nuggets of information about Lou to process.
After coming up on a car crash Lou is inspired by videographer (Bill Paxton) who shoots footage of accident and crime scenes and then sells it to the highest paying news outlet. Lou steals a bicycle and pawns it for a cheap camcorder and a police scanner. After some rough early experiences, Lou captures some footage of a carjacking. He approaches Nina Romina (Russo), the news director of a struggling morning show, and she eagerly buys the footage. She encourages Lou to bring anything newsworthy to her first.
As Lou’s ‘business’ picks up he gets a new car, new equipment, and a new assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed). He also becomes egotistic, more ambitious, and addicted to his new-found success. He begins tampering with crime scenes in hopes of getting more dramatic footage and bigger paydays. But Lou ultimately lusts recognition. As the film progresses we see more unhinged and sociopathic behavior from him and we begin to wonder how far he will go down this dark and twisted path.
Gilroy gives us a veritable smorgasbord of dark humor, biting satire, and neo-noir perspectives. There are so many clever machinations that keep things fairly unpredictable and uncomfortable (and I mean that in a good way). Initially it is the subtlety of the evil that is unsettling. Sometimes it is camouflaged within Lou’s quirky and seemingly mild-mannered behavior. Later his actions cross a number of disturbing lines and we see in him a cold indifference to what he is doing.
Gilroy develops such a dark and twisted tone in large part thanks to Robert Elswit’s atmospheric cinematography and the moody score from James Newton Howard. But the brightest spotlight shines on Gyllenhaal and his sensational performance. He is truly terrifying but in an unorthodox sense. It’s Gyllenhaal’s appearance, his expressions, his postures. But it’s also his inconspicuousness. His character is someone that could gel into society without anyone noticing his existence. Russo is also very good and she gives us an entirely different form of evil. Television ratings at all costs, morals and ethics out the window. But I do think her character is a tad too broad and at times absurdly unethical.
“Nightcrawler” has been getting a lot of praise and I can see why. It’s such a creepy, tense, and efficient crime/psychological thriller. I certainly don’t think it’s the modern day “Taxi Driver” as some critics are calling it and it doesn’t strike all of the chords it wants to. For example its sleepy little jabs at the all-American way and the entrepreneurial spirit come off as a tad weak. But it is definitely effective in far more areas than not and it doesn’t follow any routine conventional path. Add a phenomenal Jake Gyllenhaal performance to that and it’s easy to see why this film works so well.