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Review: Nightcrawler

This article was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad.

It would be disingenuous to claim that Jake Gyllenhaal is unrecognizable in Nightcrawler. It's hard not to commit Gyllenhaal to memory once you've seen him. But it would be true to say that he is less recognizable in Nightcrawler. The effect is not unlike the rubberneck squinting at the new Renée Zellweger, trying to place the differences that unsettle you.

The actor dropped 30 lbs to play his new character and lived on the night shift to prepare and it wasn't for the strenuously faux-noble reason of biographic fidelity. It must be method madness that led him to burrow into this altogether terrific star turn as Lou Bloom, a gaunt sleepless thief turned "journalist". The big difference with this Gyllenhaal is in the eyes. Those big impossibly romantic orbs have lost all their soft blueness. They're suddenly bulging from their skull, like they want to escape it. Or like they're planning to hypnotize you while the mouth delivers its mechanical sales pitch.

And with Lou Bloom, the sales pitch never stops. The night owl approaches each conversation like it's a job interview, checking off catchphrases and talking points from his mental checklist. This is all well and good for the film's first reel when Lou is trying to find a job. But when he chances upon an accident one night and sees nightcrawling freelancers filming it, the search is over; he makes it his mission to join this profession. It's here where his can-do "I'm a hard worker" salesmanship begins to ferment and spook. [More...]

Even after he finds quick success he continues to sell himself or ideas he's sucked up from a rival (Bill Paxton in typically sleazy mode), or a particular POV. There is nothing he won't do to learn the ropes, be first at the scene of a crime or accident, to get the most frightening and bloodiest images on tape.

He devours advice from an amoral local news programmer Nina (Rene Russo) working the night shift. Her fear-mongering lessons like "If it bleeds, it leads" he instantly digests in his efforts to become the best in his grisly profession. [SPOILER]. In one of the film's most chilling early moments, we realize he'll do anything for a good shot dragging a wounded body -- the kind you're not supposed to move, naturally -- just so for a shot. The videographer isn't above breaking and entering or disrupting a crime scene for the right footage either [/SPOILER]. Lou doesn't blink at bending rules. In fact, he doesn't blink at anything. Maybe Jake used up all his blinks with his tic filmed performance in Prisoners (reviewed here) because Lou's eyes never close; they're perpetually wide open, like nothing can escape their soulless surveillance.

Nightcrawler is likely to be interpreted as a satire of the news media but isn't really that. It's closer to docudrama if you take the news as its subject. If you've watched your local news or Fox News, lately, you've surely already noticed the fearmongering and sensationalism. The movie doesn't seem remotely "heightened" around this subject. But it's got enough stylistic verve with great digital cinematography and the omnipresent void of its inky black nights, that you can feel it reaching for something that's a much harder target to hit. Perhaps its true subject is vampiric capitalism, where feeding off the desperation, fear, blood and pain of others is how you crawl, no... slither to the top of the food chain.

Though Nightcrawler is tensely edited and short enough to work well as a thriller, it doesn't quite linger like it should. It spends too long on a subplot about Lou's clueless "intern" (Riz Ahmed, nominated for a Gotham Awards "Breakthrough" prize) which doesn't have as strong a payoff as it seems to think. The ending makes thematic sense but feels abrupt. But so what if it doesn't quite reach greatness? At least it's reaching! So few movies have ambition and though Lou has a very disturbing definition of "good people" he does have a point when he sells commitment and ambition:

I'm a hard worker. I set high goals and I've been told that I'm persistent. What I believe is that good things come to those who work their asses off. And that good people who reach the top of the mountain didn't just fall there." 

Lou may be a sociopath but he is persistent and inarguably committed to his warped point of view. So, too, is Nina. Rene Russo's steely performance will make you curse those Thor movies which always leave her standing majestically in the background with virtually nothing to act. Lou & Nina are fascinating from beginning to end with the two actors delivering must-see performances, the kind that Oscar nominations were meant for. This is especially true in their electric scenes together, which are more and more tightly wound as the movie escalates. Watch them negotiate -  two vampires hoping to feed off each other without spilling their own blood.

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Reader Comments (8)

Congrats to jake for such a great performance, but he's barred from my dreams for some time now. Creeptastic.

November 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMikey67

I'm evenly split on the film and Jake's performance. I admired how hard he was pushing himself, but I thought his performance too mechanical and not layered enough. Still, props to him for pushing his limits.

I do agree, however, that Russo is superb. So effortless in her authoritativeness and desperation. You could see from her performance how the industry is both a cause of fuel and exhaustion for this woman. So great!

November 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

I also thought Gyllenhaal was great in this and appreciate how he's been pushing himself (and probably will continue to do so in next few roles he's got lined up, playing a depressed banker, a boxer and a climber). However, I think he should maybe do something a bit lighter next to avoid the "intense" categorising. And by light I mean a good comedy, not Prince of Persia light.

November 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

Off Topic: I'm watching the other Gyllenhaal, Maggie, in The Honourable Woman and she's doing a phenomenal job. I strongly recommend it. Plus: Janet McTeer and Lindsay Duncan also appear.

November 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Did anyone else feel the final speech from Ahmed's character was pretty awful? This clunky moment really let the rest of the (very enjoyable) film down. A glance would have done so much more.

November 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterResident Geek

resident -- i also felt that. I think the Ahmed character is a big problem for the film in general. Not fully thought out, implausible, and too on the nose

November 10, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

If Jake Gyllenhaal is nominated for anything, please let it be for Enemy! I preferred the performance there though I guess Nightcrawler is the more interesting one. Though I think the latter is a disappointing one that doesn't do more than serve the narrative. The character's there, but Jake is just there, too.

December 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterA Mai

It's all about perspective. For a tone-blending and -bending allegory (as Gilroy designed it), those who think of sociopaths exactly as people they may go out and meet, Jake is mechanical.

For others with academic background on sociopathy, the brain's processing of emotion and expressions, this performance is supposedly to be highly nuanced and realistic.

December 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStrangely

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