Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, a weird isolated guy in Los Angeles, with only a high school degree, and a very strange personality, who literally stumbles over the underground high-speed world of freelance crime journalism: the “nightcrawlers” with police scanners in their cars who race to crime scenes in order to get footage which they then sell to local TV stations.
Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler is riveting, in part because of Gyllenhaal’s disturbing and off-putting performance, and in part because it’s a look at a fascinating world that I, for one, know little about. Lou Bloom is not educated. He researches things obsessively online, and speaks as though he has downloaded self-help motivational books into his brain. He is a go-getter, but there’s something off about him. Everyone senses it. “Your problem is, you don’t understand people, man,” says Rick (Riz Ahmed, excellent) to Lou. Rick is the “assistant” Lou hires for his fictional “news organization,” and Lou bosses Rick around in an imperious dictatorial manner. Lou says to Rick in reply, “What if it’s not that I don’t understand people, Rick. What if it’s that I just don’t like them.”
Nightcrawler works on multiple levels. It’s a great Los Angeles story. It’s a world of insomniacs and weirdos, outlaws, rivals, people hanging to the mainstream by a fraying thread. Bill Paxton plays Joe, another nightcrawler with more experience than Bloom, who quickly realizes that Bloom’s ruthlessness and lack of boundaries (as well as his lack of a moral compass) is THE thing that pushes Bloom ahead of him, that allows Bloom to elbow in to get shots that nobody else would get. Bloom looks at gruesome crime scenes as a chance to hone his camera skills. He informs Nina (Rene Russo), the ambitious television producer who is his sole contact in the industry, that he is now “concentrating on framing” because “proper framing is the best way to get across visual information” and blah blah, he parrots off stuff he probably read on the Wikipedia entry for “camera frames.” Nina is impressed. Sweeps are coming up. Her job is in jeopardy. She knows it and Lou knows it. She needs his footage. He starts to … blackmail her? Not exactly. It’s more like emotional terrorism. She is taken in, only because she lacks the imagination to understand how far he is willing to go, and that no, he is not kidding.
In Prisoners, Enemy, Zodiac, and I’m probably missing a few, Gyllenhaal has shown his gift in clicking in with the perspective of the perpetual outsider, the anti-social obsessive, the worrier, the detail-oriented guy, the guy who gets LOST in the details of any given topic. The one who sees connections between disparate elements, the one who delves into those connections like a worried dog who knows … knows … that there is a bone buried somewhere in the yard. The rest of the world falls away, becomes a mirage. Each of these characters have their own rhythm, their own quirks and gestures, energy and mood. They are not repeats. In Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal goes even farther into that realm. He is slick and almost oily-looking, his hair long, pulled back in a little bun on the back of his head. He’s verging on Rupert Pupkin territory here. When he smiles, your skin crawls, because it is both totally genuine and truly strange. Did he practice the smile in the mirror? It’s Travis Bickle territory. The territory of, as Travis Bickle describes himself, “God’s lonely man.”
Everyone who meets Leo Bloom thinks … Uh … yeah. Something is … not quite right there.
They have no idea how right they are. Those who encounter him are also ambitious, aggressive, ruthless … but they won’t go as far as he does, because they not only understand limits, they embody those limits. On some level, we may want Lou Bloom to be revealed, unmasked, in the same way that we may yearn for Rupert Pupkin to be taken down, taken OUT. But that’s not the way life often goes.
Nightcrawler is a moody dark picture, with gorgeous yawningly empty shots of the long LA streets at 4 o’clock in the morning. It features a couple of good old-fashioned awesome car chases, with (it looks like) no CGI. I love a well-shot car chase!
The film is a true tour de force for Gyllenhall (in the least self-congratulatory way possible). Lou is scary in a way you can’t quite locate or name. It reminds me of Seth Rogen’s masterful performance in 2009’s Observe and Report, an under-seen film that was one of the best of that year.
I won’t be forgetting Lou Bloom any time soon. I hope I never run into him.
Nightcrawler opens in the US and the UK on October 31.