Published Oct 30, 2014Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler is among the most cynical and nihilistic films you're likely to see all year. It's also a wonderful piece of dark satire, skewering everything from American journalism to business culture to a distinctly sociopathic American flavour of ambition. From its opening, wherein we see petty criminal Louis (Jake Gyllenhaal) stealing chain-link fence in the wee hours of a Los Angeles morning, Nightcrawler hooks you immediately and pulls you downward into the grit and dirt of its endless Los Angeles night.
Louis is odd and fascinating. He is immediately presented to us as a smart, opportunistic and amoral survivor, but his naiveté makes him just entertaining enough that we don't hate him. Gyllenhaal reportedly lost 30 pounds for the role and it shows; his chest doesn't fill up his shirts, but his eyes, sunken deep into his gaunt face, speak volumes. He's creepy to look at, and when his hair is slicked back, he resembles a cunning cartoon rat. Louis reminds me of that Tragically Hip song title "Looking For A Place To Happen," and he finds that place when he passes a highway accident and witnesses a freelance camera crew — so-called nightcrawlers — capturing news footage to sell to the highest bidder. He wants to try his hand, so he steals a bike and pawns it for the tools of the trade: a video camera and a police scanner. At first he stumbles (his fuckups are hilarious), but soon he's providing Nina (a fantastic, salty Rene Russo), the news director of a ratings-starved local affiliate, with all of her best, most grisly footage. Louis is ecstatic that he's found his calling, the thing that he's both good at and interested in. Nina's happy for the ratings, no matter how much they push the envelope of what should be shown on television. It's a perfect symbiotic relationship.
This, mind you, isn't exactly Louis's "happening." Louis, who never met a self-help maxim he didn't swallow, has a long-term plan in place. He doesn't achieve, he acquires; he doesn't earn so much as he conquers and takes. Nina's world is ratings, and to acquire them, she needs Louis. Louis's world is infinitely more complex; he's an ideologue, and his proficiency comes from an emotionless pursuit of success and status. He's the American dream in a funhouse mirror, someone who spouts dogma but believes in nothing.
As leads, Gyllenhaal and Russo command and hold attention; when they're onscreen simultaneously, there is a great give-and-take. Gyllenhaal also has great scenes with Riz Ahmed, who plays his assistant and would-be moral compass, Rick. But make no mistake — this movie is all about Gyllenhaal, who takes Louis from a simmer to a rapid boil, psychologically. The more success he has, the more he wants; the more powerful he feels, the more he seeks to wield that power, and wield it over other people. The film's third act, which commences with a heinous crime and ups the ante with every passing second, is paced exceedingly well. Along the way down, we get to see Louis stripped of all nuance, and experience the uncomfortable sensation of — in 30 Rock parlance — hate-respecting him just a little bit.
Nightcrawler is a must-see. It's a pointed, dark, and quite funny look at the kinds of news culture we loudly mock but secretly consume, and a look inside the kinds of people that create those worlds and why.