Nightcrawler is the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, whose writing credits include The Bourne Legacy and Real Steel; his brother Frank is a Pulitzer-winning playwright, his other brother Tony directed Michael Clayton; his twin brother John edited this film, and his wife Rene Russo needs no introduction. Dan keeps to the family tradition with this, a superbly crafted and darkly satirical thriller with a mesmerizing central performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.
A sallow, hollowed-out Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a reptilian man with a blank smile who ekes out a living stealing scrap from LA construction sites. Internet research has filled Lou with all the buzzwords and positive reinforcement of corporate America’s HR departments, and he tries to present himself as a hard-working, dedicated fast learner who’d be an asset to anyone brave enough to employ him. The fact that he’s quite breathtakingly morally unhinged prevents that, until he stumbles upon the world of freelance crime journalism – getting to crime or accident scenes first, filming the bloody aftermath, and selling it to local news stations for their fear-mongering morning reports.
Lou begins a buyer/seller relationship with a local station’s news director, Russo’s Nina Romina, who shares his affinity for grisly crime scenes and exploitative footage of tragedy and horror. He also takes on an intern, Rick, wonderfully played by Riz Ahmed – a naïve, childlike young man (with a flawless American accent) who’s desperate to latch onto this prospect of employment but bewildered by the moral black hole that encircles Lou as he cruises through LA’s dark heart, the guttural purr of his car engine propelling him further and further from normal, decent behaviour. Lou’s success causes him to take greater risks with crime scenes, and concern for those he’s filming is discarded completely in the slipstream of his naked ambition.
Gyllenhall is absolutely gripping, and the film’s a real showcase for his talent as one of the finest leading men around. It’s hard to believe, with such weighty performances as Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, End of Watch, Prisoners and now this behind him, that Gyllenhall is only 33 years old. It’s exciting to think what the next decade will bring for him (most immediately, climbing Everest with Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Kiera Knightley and Robin Wright – in a film, not for charity). Lou is an unspeakable person but his polite, business-jargon veneer makes him oddly compelling and allows him to walk amongst the normal folk, hiding in plain sight. Russo is excellent as his desperate mentor, gradually ceding power to him in their increasingly intimate relationship.
The film takes aim in two directions. The bloodlust and callousness of the modern news media is the obvious target, and the idea of freelance news vans racing each other through darkened streets in order to be first to get their lens in the blood is worryingly believable. Gilroy does manage to tease out the dark comedy in these moments very well. The other target is American jobs culture, with Lou as a distillation of the consequences of all those vacant mantras about how to get ahead in business, married to a basic moral absence. It’s creepily effective and in this sense it’s a more cerebral and unsettling thriller than recent efforts like Gone Girl. There’s awards chatter for Gyllenhall and rightly so – this might not be the film that gets him there (Best Actor is going to be astonishingly tough at this year’s Oscars) but it is a smart, sleek thriller and an assured directorial debut from Gilroy.