‘Nightcrawler’ Review: Skeevy, Sleazy Jake Gyllenhaal Is the Best Jake Gyllenhaal

By  · Published on September 8th, 2014

Open Road Films

Someone will diagnose Louis Bloom soon enough, perhaps earmarking him as a straightforward sociopath, or pointing to certain tendencies that smack of Asperger’s Syndrome, or maybe he’ll even be written off of as someone with daddy issues, or mommy issues, or as someone just needs a hug. It doesn’t matter. Louis Bloom is a monster ripped from the pages of some modern fairy tale and splashed on to the big screen for audiences to forever delight in, even as he disgusts them. He’s an anti-hero for the ages, and the vessel that delivers him is a classic in the making.

In Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut Nightcrawler, the screenwriter of such varied fare as The Fall and The Bourne Legacy takes on Los Angeles’ seedy underbelly with a fresh eye and a daring story, setting Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis “Lou” Bloom, a petty thief in need of a new career path. Lou is a lot of things: skinny, underfed, tired, resourceful, a fast talker, a quick study, a con man, a criminal and someone entirely without boundaries. Free of a social filter, Lou moves through the world in a different way than most people, and Gyllenhaal fully inhabits the role, slipping inside Lou seamlessly. It would be entirely terrifying if it weren’t so damn good.

It’s purely by chance that Lou stumbles on an unexpected job opportunity path as he zips along a Los Angeles freeway on an otherwise ordinary night, one that he will prove most unnervingly adept at. Lou, pretty easily classed as a weirdo, pulls over to watch a pair of cops pull an injured woman from a flaming car instead of orderly creeping past in his crappy car. As Lou watches, a news van arrives on the scene – packing no less than Bill Paxton, who is approaching his own renaissance with both gusto and talent – but it’s not a normal news van, it belongs to a freelance outfit, and they’re the first on the scene to film the gore and the trauma of an otherwise normal accident.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” and Lou doesn’t have a problem with either thing – the bleeding or the leading – and he soon hits upon a plan to pursue a new career direction by becoming a nightcrawler, a freelance crime videographer who literally prowls the streets at night to film various events that will unsettle and enthrall the television news-consuming masses. Lou’s new job comes with a steep learning curve, but he’s a man looking for an opportunity, and he grabs it with both hands, thanks to a street-wise scrappiness and a jarring lack of social graces. Of course, he’s going to need some help along the way, which is why he employs a witless and terrified intern (Riz Ahmed, who adds the necessary humanity to an otherwise dark feature) and the news director at a local network, a desperate and hungry Nina (Rene Russo), who will pay top dollar for even the most horrific video.

Lou is good at his job. Lou is very good at his job, and as he and Rick (Ahmed) prowl the streets and listen close to their police scanner every night, a dark sort of pride takes roots in the anti-hero, and it suddenly seems like anything is possible. Even the worst possible thing. Inky as night and dark to boot, Nightcrawler is both amusing and unsettling, and the truth about what Lou does for a living says just as much about the consuming public as it does about him. If it bleeds, it leads!, and Lou has plenty of leading stories to keep his coffers lined and his hunger sated.

The film smacks of similar outings, from Network to Drive, Taxi Driver to Collateral, with a little Magnolia thrown in for good measure, while still maintaining its own unique look, feel, tone and movement. It’s got style to spare, including a James Newton Howard soundtrack that smacks of the appropriate eighties influence, slick camera angles and the kind of narrative flow that keeps things snappy and sensational the vast majority of the time (there are a handful of missteps around the film’s middle, but they are eventually smoothed out and the feature continues pounding admirably on). Just the right amount of humor is peppered in, the kind of seasoning that keeps such a dark tale above water, alternately entertaining and terrifying its audience. What do you want to see? Do you want to see blood? It’s here, and plenty of stuff that is far worse.

Make no mistake, Nightcrawler is a major work for everyone involved – yet another powerful turn from Gyllenhaal (who truly gets better, weirder and richer with each feature), a battle cry of a debut feature from Gilroy and a uncanny showcase for supporting stars like Russo, Paxton and Ahmed. It’s dark and strange and unsettling, but it’s never anything less than compulsively and devilishly watchable and highly consumable. What is Nightcrawler? As Nina tells it, it’s “a screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut.” It’s brutal, and you can’t look away, but why would you want to?

The Upside: An all-timer of a Jake Gyllenhaal performance, strong supporting turns from Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed, a narrative that’s as compelling as it is uncomfortable, assuredly directed, swiftly moving, darkly funny.

The Downside: Minor breakdowns in its middle act that diminish its freight train pace, needs more Paxton.

On the Side: The role proved to be immensely physical for Jake Gyllenhaal, as the actor lost twenty pounds for his part and needed to visit a hospital for stitches during filming.

For all of our Toronto International Film Festival coverage, bookmark this page.