With Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal finally gets his chance to shine.
I’ve always enjoyed Gyllenhaal and thought that he does solid work; if anything, I think he’s an underrated actor. Though he has been in a ton of movies, he’s rarely been given the opportunity to show the world just what it is that he can do. Even when he turns in some of his best work, he’s often been overshadowed by his co-stars; Gyllenhaal’s performance in Brokeback Mountain, for example, is heartbreaking and subtle, but Heath Ledger eclipsed Gyllenhaal in most people’s eyes. Gyllenhaal was one of my favorite things about Prisoners last year, but it’s hard to compete with a raging Hugh Jackman. Gyllenhaal has made his fair share of career missteps – Prince of Persia seemed particularly ill-advised – but he’s a guy that I always thought was one performance away from convincing the masses how talented he really was. It appears that his opportunity has arrived.
There’s a lot to like in the new film Nightcrawler, but first and foremost is Jake Gyllenhaal’s intensely creepy performance. When we first meet Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal), he is trying to convince the guy that he’s selling stolen cooper to that he should be given a job. From the beginning, it is clear that there is something just a little off about Bloom; he can seem quite charming, but there is an inauthenticity to it. He’s part salesman and part con artist; his moral code is questionable at best. One night Bloom comes across a “nightcrawler” (Bill Paxton) – a freelance videographer that trolls L.A. at night, shooting footage of crimes and catastrophes and then sells his video to the local news stations. Bloom is immediately drawn to this prospective career opportunity; he buys himself a police scanner and a cheap camcorder and spends his evenings as a different kind of ambulance chaser. He even is able to convince a young man (Riz Ahmed) to become his intern in this venture, by overstating the nature and career opportunities of the job. Using questionable methods and ethics and by adhering to the old media adage “if it bleeds it leads,” Bloom fosters a relationship with local news director Nina (Rene Russo). In order to maintain his competitive edge – and hold sway over Nina – Bloom is not afraid to resort to drastic measures and manufacture stories to assure he gets the best footage in Los Angeles.
You really can’t take your eyes of Gyllenhaal in this performance; it’s unlike anything that he’s ever done before and makes you see the actor in a new light. Gyllenhaal’s Bloom is clearly a weird guy, but as the movie progresses and the layers of his character are revealed you discover what a sociopath he truly is. Gyllenhaal is completely convincing in this cold and creepy role – there is danger lurking under the surface with Bloom and it’s just a question of when that will be unleased. What makes it truly unsettling is that there is little to no anger associated with this menace; when Bloom is threatening, he does so without raising his voice or with any sense that he is not in control of his emotions. The coolness with which he can switch between a pleasant conversation about the weather to threatening blackmail or physical harm is jarring. Further enhancing this performance is the physical transformation of Gyllnehaal – the actor lost about 30 pounds from his already svelte body for this role and the result is a wiry guy whose eyes always look like they are going to pop out of his head. While in Prisoners I joked that Gyllnehaal blinked a lot, in Nightcrawler he barely blinks at all. This only adds to the intensity of his portrayal and serves as another subtle clue that there is something not right about Louis Bloom. When it serves his purposes, Bloom can be affable and even charming, though he also gives off the impression that he is trying a little too hard. What can initially be written off as earnestness is in fact Bloom’s unchecked ambition and calculating nature. He’s willing to play whatever role he needs to in order to manipulate and get ahead. In some ways, this character reminded me a little of Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver.
The film not only offers us a look at a disturbed individual, but is an examination of our media culture. At a time when both national and local news outlets are trumping up the threat of Ebola as a way to drive ratings, there is much to identify with Russo’s news room philosophy. Her viewers, she indicates, aren’t interested in all crime; what happens in the poorer sections of town are of no interest to them. The creep of urban crime into the suburbs is the real money maker and the way that she coaching the news team to reinforce the danger that the people tuning in may or may not realistically face seemed very realistic. Russo’s character Nina isn’t necessarily a bad person, but she’s a veteran of the local news game and knows what she needs to do to survive. If anything, she’s a pragmatist. We’re complicit in this too, as the consumers that are driving the ratings. Nightcrawler may not handle this critique in the most subtle or nuanced way and it won’t come as a surprise to people like me who have been studying the media for years, but regardless of the deftness of the presentation you can’t help but think about this issue and how we receive our news. There’s also some more subtle stuff about how local news media treats women as they age.
Even though I had an idea where Nightcrawler was ultimately going to end up, it was still a riveting film. The cast and crew ratchet up the tension over the course of the film and the last 20 minutes or so were fairly intense. Even with a suspicion as to the resolution, I found myself slightly leaning forward in my seat and unable to relax. There are laughs to be had in Nightcrawler, but they are mostly the uncomfortable kind. It’s a nervous laughter, born from the unease at what your are witnessing and your subconscious need to deflect or repackage what you are asked to process. Even so, the laughter never truly alleviates the tension or unease; if anything, I think it actually made me more uncomfortable.
There are moments when Nightcrawler moves a little slow for me or where the dialogue is less than artful or natural, but despite these flaws I truly enjoyed the movie. Gyllenhaal has created a very memorable character with his performance and the rest of the cast assist in telling an interesting, if creepy story. You’ll walk away from Nightcrawler thinking about Gyllenhaal, but if the film also makes you examine the news in the process, so much the better. Halloween is a time for the creepy and scary, but what makes Nightcrawler is a horror movie of a different kind. The lengths that Gyllenhaal’s Louis is willing to go to in order to get his footage will probably scare you more than any of the serial killers and supernatural entities that Hollywood offers up. Nightcrawler is an entertaining – if slightly unnerving – look at ambition, psychosis and the media.
Nightcrawler opens nationwide today (October 31st).