Taxi Driver meets Network – with a sleek-cool retro-modern Drive vibe – in writer-director Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, an original and highly impressive directing debut from the writer of Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy bolstered by a startling lead performance from Jake Gyllenhaal that rates as one of the year’s best.
Gyllenhaal is Louis Bloom, a night-crawling, fast-talking L.A. sociopath who is part Travis Bickle, part Patrick Bateman, but mostly one of those sleazy late-night TV presenters hawking the benefits of dishrags and steak knives or selling you on the power of positive thinking – which can be yours for the low-low price of $9.99 in six monthly installments.
In the opening scenes of Nightcrawler, Bloom steals copper wire from an industrial site, which he attempts to sell to a scrapyard owner. Gyllenhaal’s almost alien say-the-right-thing-with-a-positive-attitude performance makes an immediate impact: here and throughout the film, his Bloom seems to be reciting the mantra of How to Make Friends and Influence People without actually interacting with them on a human level.
“What if my problem isn’t that I don’t understand people,” he explains to his assistant (Riz Ahmed) later on, “but that I don’t like them?”
In this line of work, however, Bloom’s people-manipulating skills can only take him so far; his attempts to talk his way into a legit job fall on deaf ears as the junk man puts him in his place.
Throughout Nightcrawler, we feel an odd sense of sympathy with Louis Bloom. This guy is a creep and a slimeball, but one that society has created, and one that does his very best with the opportunities that society gives him. Like the scummiest Film Noir heroes, he has no moral code, but in the world that surrounds him, there’s no use for one, anyway.
The gears in Bloom’s head start cranking when he comes across a late-night car accident and spots rogue cameraman Joe Loder (played by Bill Paxton) getting some bloody crime scene shots that will then be sold to local news stations for a cool payout. He quizzes Loder about the basic logistics of such a gig, and despite being turned away from the profession, he sees an opportunity.
Armed with a police scanner, a camcorder, and a car, Bloom sets out to capture some footage he can sell. I was delighted to find that Gilroy’s script actually delved into the logistics of such a profession, including when to make the dash to that far-away crime scene and when to wait for the next one, and what kinds of neighborhoods to stake out while waiting.
Even more impressive is the biting commentary when Bloom takes his footage into the newsroom. The more bloody the crime scene, the better, producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo) tells him; the types of stories that fare best on local news programs are no surprise, but it’s a dark and soulless world – not unlike the lead character here – that is fittingly explored.
Someone like Bloom, of course, can thrive in a profession like this – the only real skill needed is a lack of respect for the victims. Bloom soon finds that he can get even better footage by slightly altering the crime scenes, and the gears continue to tick for this sicko on where he can go from there.
James Howard’s soundtrack – sparse electronic beats mixed with some more moody and upbeat compositions – is a perfect fit for the material. Cinematography by Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) is some of the best nighttime L.A. footage ever captured, right up there with Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron’s work on Collateral.
A number of local L.A. news anchors – including Kent Shocknek and Pat Harvey – amusingly appear on screen as themselves.
Despite Gyllenhaal’s brilliant performance, Nightcrawler scored but a single Oscar nomination, for Gilroy’s Original Screenplay. Still, this is wickedly entertaining stuff: it’s one of my favorite films of 2014.