Sometimes a film just works because it takes a story we all know and love and applies some sort of twisted logic to it in order to not only recontextualize the genre, but make a point about how that genre actually operates in the real world. Take, for example, Nightcrawler. Structurally, this is a fairly standard rags-to-riches story, with protagonist Lou Bloom working his way up through the ranks of his chosen profession until his skills place him at the top of his game. What makes Nightcrawler so special though is the character of Lou and the profession that he finds himself the rising star of.
Lou starts out as a night owl thief scrounging for scrap metal, when he comes across an auto accident and pulls over to watch the police extricate a woman from the wreckage. Suddenly, a news van arrives on the scene, swarming with cameramen (nightcrawlers, as the film calls them) getting up close and personal on the police and victim who are too otherwise occupied to push them away. Lou sees this and thinks it would be a good idea to get into the business himself, so he buys his own camera and police scanner and starts filming, eventually hiring an “intern” to navigate for him and becoming a prominent member of the journalistic community.
Jake Gyllenhaal breathes a special sort of life into Lou, having lost so much weight for the role that his eyes nearly pop out of his skull, which is made all the more creepy by his tendency to blink as little as possible. Lou speaks almost entirely in PR language and bargaining terms, sounding like someone who has memorized every phrase from the minimum wage management handbook, yet doesn’t have the position or resources to use the jargon effectively. His rambling nature is accentuated by a malicious undercurrent, where it becomes clear that no step is too far for him to take in order to achieve his goals, no matter how underhanded, no matter how violent. This performance is what elevates the film to greatness, and it will no doubt be one of the Oscar contenders for Best Actor.
But Lou wouldn’t work so well as a character if it weren’t for the smartly directed screenplay that recognizes the formula it is derived from and plays on the audience’s expectations. Eventually, as Lou’s talent and drive push him toward being one of the most powerful nightcrawlers in Los Angeles, what at first looks to be an honest, if morally reprehensible, living starts taking on more sinister tones at Lou’s direction. Whether it is through coercion, deception, or just plain illegality, Lou will go to whatever lengths necessary to get what he wants, and though the plot may be a bit predictable at times, the way the film makes those moments the subject of deep suspense shifts focus from what is going to happen to when and how it is going to happen. Integrate that with a message about the evils of crime-driven local journalism, and this makes for a truly intense film, punctuated by the fact that our fascinating anti-hero drives it all through sheer force of will, leading us to question if he is truly evil or just a symptom of a larger system.
Nightcrawler is a powerful thriller that will not leave you disappointed. Gyllenhaal truly delivers as Lou, and the script he has to work with really lets his acting talents shine. To miss out on this would be to miss out on one of the most intense films of 2014. So don’t miss it.
Has Jake Gyllenhaal ever delivered a performance of this dramatic scale before? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.