It takes balls to revolve an entire film around a character who is downright unlikable. In a landscape of easily accessible protagonists and cheery goals and motivations, Nightcrawler spits in the face of joy and comfort to deliver a hypnotizing portrait of a man who has left morals behind.
Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) may believe in hard work and forward advancement in the business world but that hasn’t changed the fact that he is a petty thief, stealing manhole covers and chain link fences when not busy assaulting security officers for their watches. Lou finds his avenue to success, however, when he falls into the world of “nightcrawling,” videotaping latenight accidents, murders and robberies for local Los Angeles TV news. Once in, Lou will stop at nothing to reach the top, abandoning all morality while manipulating coworkers and taking out the competition.
Nightcrawler is a creepingly uncomfortable viewing experience all thanks to Jake Gyllenhall going the extra mile to be, well, the ultimate creep. Appearance-wise, the actor is gaunt to the point of being almost unrecognizable and exudes unsettling focus and intensity, while first time writer/director Dan Gilroy crafts a character on paper that is repulsive but mildly admirable for his tenacity — something Gyllenhaal jumps all over in performance. The story expertly unfurls the depths of Bloom’s ruthless nature and why he does what he does to the point where all expectations of him doing the right thing disappear.
Everything pivots on the study of Bloom and Gyllenhaal fully delivers on his end of the slimy deal. Gilroy manages more than alright on his own as well, producing a smart script that keeps you thinking, whether it be about the effects of a recession and limited job market, racial selectiveness in crime reporting and the “if it bleeds, it leads” desperation that some media embraces. Gilroy’s story is the sturdy bedrock on which all of Gyllenhaal’s character work can build upon (props as well to Rene Russo, tactfully playing the similarly dubious and enabling but unsuspecting news director, Nina.)
As an unabashed character piece, it admittedly takes Nightcrawler a bit to get moving. The first 45 minutes of the film is all character work that, while good, feels a tad aimless. It’s after then that the movie finds its plot and puts its character inspection to good use.
Nightcrawler acts like a passing car wreck you can’t turn away from, while remaining a pristine example of filmmaking. Gyllenhaal’s unsettling performance and Gilroy’s cynical script make for one of the seediest, thoughtful film experiences this year that will keep you pondering long after.