Hollywood doesn’t really do much originality these days, which is a shame when it produces films such as Nightcrawler. Because amid all the superheroes, young adult adaptations, endless reboots, remakes and sequels original ideas just don’t seem quite marketable. Which is a pity because Nightcrawler, while not the easiest film to market, is easily one of the most refreshing, smart and outright brilliant films in recent memory.
It follows Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) who when we first meet him brutally attacks a man to steal his watch. It’s a brave opening gambit to essentially tell us; this is not a good guy. But in doing so writer-director Dan Gilroy toys with our moral code. Because Lou is hard not to like, yes he’s overly ambitious, deeply creepy and without doubt a sociopath but beneath it all there is a lonely charm he oozes.
Desperate for a job Lou stumbles upon a road traffic accident and watches as a ‘nightcrawler’ – a freelance news gathering journalist – essentially rubbernecks the whole scene, blood and all, before selling it to local news networks at a premium. Lou, like us is immediately hooked. Because in a digital age, where everything is instant and emotions are diluted by the sheer volume of horrors we see online each day, you need something a little more graphic to grab people’s attention, even if that does mean shocking them.
Beyond the dark, ghoulish ways of Nightcrawler Dan Gilroy has tapped into something smartly subversive in the zeitgeist. A sense of dark curiosity of gazing as the world burns before our very eyes. And that is why Lou is impossible to hate. Because Gilroy has created a monster that is essentially an extreme version of us; a man so ambitious he’s willing to trample over laws and sense of right or wrong in order to achieve his goals. And therein lies the film’s genius; that throughout we want him to get away with it, because if he’s the devil we’re his minions. So while Lou is at first manipulating people, then the news itself, Gilroy has his audience dancing on strings as he maneuvers our morality so we’re back-to-front before a jury of our own consciousness.
It’s a visual marvel, a neo-noir residing in the dark underbelly of street and spotlights of Los Angeles landscapes and studio spaces. Imagine if Drive was set in the media world and you’re somewhere close to understanding the wonderful sense of dark, brooding brilliance Nightcrawler offers. It is exquisitely shot with lights always reflected in Lou’s glacial eyes adding a spark, a sense of life beneath his glassy exterior. The dialogue is crisp, a His Girl Friday snap combined with an Aaron Sorkin sense of self-reflective irony. Witness as Lou spills endless self-help mottos to those around him that seem to highlight just how dangerous this man is and how far he’s willing to go. He’s the kind of character that could sell an oil slick to wildlife and makes the hacking scandal look like a minor blip on the media horizon.
In any other film Rene Russo’s ice-queen producer would be the villain of the piece, the unwavering determination to shock her audience into repeat viewings. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance made all the more powerful when she finally begins to look like an intimidated puppy next to Lou’s unflinching gaze. Riz Ahmed gives a career best turn as Lou’s wet-behind-the-ears assistant, a man too timid to ever stand a chance in Lou’s dog-eat-dog world he manages to be the most sympathetic character on offer but his lack of grit makes you question his ability to survive.
Nightcrawler sees Jake Gyllenhaal, currently on the crest of a career wave, deliver another transformative and jaw-dropping performance. His emaciated look, his sunken eyes pale in comparison to the wide-eyed wonder he projects dazzles with ruthless, cutthroat ambition. There is a sense of constant infantile glee in the performance than can turn in an instance to something genuinely sinister. Gyllenhaal has developed for the role a shark grin; at one point disarming but just as likely to chew your arm off to see if you taste good enough for him to allow you to live. If Oscar had as much ambition and venom as Gyllenhaal’s Lou does he’d be a shoe-in for the win, as it stands the performance is simply too dark to dare to applaud it from anywhere other than behind the sofa.
A damning satire of society or a terrifyingly accurate mirror? Nightcrawler is a smart, thrilling and deeply seductive film slowly picking over the carcass that was our moral compass.