Movie Review: “Nightcrawler”

Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
Dan Gilory

Though it isn’t your typical Halloween movie by any stretch of the imagination, Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” might just be the most frightening film of the year – not in the scares it delivers (because there are none), but rather the chilling peek that it provides behind the curtain of a completely different kind of horror: local TV news. This isn’t the first time that subject has been satirized before in cinema (perhaps most notably in Sidney Lumet’s 1977 Oscar-winning film “Network”), but “Nightcrawler” tells its debauched tale of immorality in the newsroom through the eyes of a Rupert Pupkin-esque antihero more frightening than any masked killer. The cinematic influences are boundless in Gilroy’s directorial debut, but that hasn’t stopped him from producing a truly exceptional thriller highlighted by a wickedly entrancing, career-best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.

The actor stars as Louis Bloom, a petty thief who’s willing to put in the hard work and make a career for himself if someone will just give him a chance. As luck would have it, Louis finds his calling when he passes by a fatal car accident one night and notices the freelance cameramen filming it in all its bloody glory. These guys are like the storm chasers of the TV news world – driving around at night waiting for tragedy to strike so that they can catch the mayhem on camera and sell the footage to whichever news station is willing to pay the most. After trading some stolen loot to a pawn shop in exchange for a camcorder and police scanner, Louis hits the ground running, and before long, he sells his first video to Channel 6 news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a kindred spirit of sorts who favors ratings over ethics. Louis has no shame in the barbaric manner in which he captures these moments (to him, it’s just part of the job), and that makes him very unpredictable, because once he gets a taste of success, he’ll do whatever it takes to get the best shot, even if that means crossing lines that aren’t meant to be crossed.

Characters like Louis Bloom are rare, exotic flowers – the kind you savor because you never know when you’ll see another one like it again. He’s the guy that everyone underestimates – the seemingly harmless oddball who’s actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing – but give him an inch and he’ll take a yard, and worse yet, he won’t think twice about the moral or legal implications of his actions, collecting news clips like a serial killer collects trophies. Gilory deserves a lot of credit for writing such a fascinating and complex character, but the movie simply wouldn’t work without Gyllenhaal in the role. The actor has been taking bigger risks lately with darker, more mature material in films like “End of Watch,” “Prisoners” and “Enemy,” and “Nightcrawler” is the pinnacle of those recent performances. He reportedly lost 30 pounds for the part, and his physical transformation (from the sunken eyes, to the lithe frame, to that haunting stare) only enhances the character’s animalistic nature, like a hyena waiting to pick up the scraps.

Rene Russo is also really good as the Dr. Frankenstein to Gyllenhaal’s monster, feeding into his sociopathic tendencies with an equally amoral attitude (she describes her late-night news program as a “screaming woman running down the street with her throat slit”), while Riz Ahmed and Bill Paxton add some laughs as Louis’ dopey intern and a fellow freelancer, respectively. Though some of what Louis gets away with in the movie is pretty implausible, it’s all done with such pitch-black humor (especially the sheer nonchalance of how Louis goes about his job) that you can forgive Gilroy for going to extremes in order to make his point. After all, most people are already aware of how the media preys on fear through propaganda, but if even half of what happens in “Nightcrawler” is true, then it’s even more terrifying than we imagined.