Nightcrawler (2014)
By: Stuart Giesel on December 23, 2014 | Comments
Nightcrawler (2014)
Director: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed
Screenplay: Dan Gilroy
Country: USA
Nightcrawler is such an apt title for this, the debut film of writer/director Dan Gilroy (Michael Clayton director Tony Gilroy’s brother, who wrote The Bourne Legacy and, interestingly, is married to Nightcrawler co-star Rene Russo). Nightcrawler. Just say it out loud, preferably with a Bela Lugosi accent. It suggests something lurking in the dark, something creepy, unsettling, almost nightmarish. Basically, everything this film is.

Nightcrawler is absolutely brilliant, a breath of (horrific) fresh air. It deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Citizen Kane, District 9, Badlands and Reservoir Dogs when you talk about directors’ best first feature films. If there’s a better film to be released this year then it’d have to be something truly special, because Nightcrawler is a stunning, sublimely disturbing piece of work that might be the sort of thing you’d get if you took the essence of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, added a bit of Michael Mann-style nightwork from Collateral, and threw in a big helping of skin-crawling American Psycho craziness.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) lives and works at night, prowling the streets of L.A. for anything that can make him money – we first meet him making ends as a thief selling stolen scrap metal. Bloom happens across a car accident and sees, via freelance crime journalist Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a better opportunity to make money. Buying his own camera and a police scanner, Bloom follows crime reports in a bid to film sensationalistic footage that he can sell off to local TV news stations. He establishes a working partnership with local news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo). Nina wants crime footage – the more graphic and sensational the better, particularly when it involves affluent white people. Fortunately for her, Bloom is more than willing to be extra-ballsy when it comes to getting the sort of dynamic footage that his competitors aren’t willing or able to get. However Bloom’s thirst for more money, equipment and self-promotion knows no bounds, and he proves himself absolutely willing and able to do whatever it takes for the best footage, even if that means putting people’s lives at risk.

Nightcrawler clicks because it’s an audacious piece of work, unafraid to show a truly scummy underside to the news business, how it can turn people into ghouls, rob them of their humanity, and make them crave as much blood and guts as any zombie in a George Romero film. Sure, it’s a patently obvious and scathing indictment of the modern news industry, and you could make the criticism that there’s nothing subtle about Nightcrawler. And, you know what? I’m okay with that, at least when the end results are as skin-crawling and effective as this. You know the sort of film that makes you want to take a long, hot shower immediately afterwards to scrub yourself clean, a’la I Spit On Your Grave? Nightcrawler is that sort of film.

Our protagonist is a beautifully fucked-up piece of work. Louis Bloom is the personification of the sort of person your parents warned you about. Initially you’re drawn in by his intelligence, his rapid-fire delivery of dialogue and his seemingly unlimited energy, but Nightcrawler makes it very clear in a short amount of time that Bloom is a deeply sick man.

Gyllenhaal’s performance is absolutely mesmerising; he’s an absolutely despicable character, possessing Travis Bickle’s delusions, Daniel Plainview’s warped world view and scorn of humanity, and Rupert Pupkin’s twisted ambition. Just when he brings a moment of levity through the odd turn of phrase or gesture, the creepiness factor kicks in to remind you that this is a person with absolutely no empathy for his fellow human being (assuming, that is, that Louis Bloom is human).

Gyllenhaal’s intensity and devotion to the part is a sight to behold. His performance is easily one of the best of the year, and Louis Bloom deserves to be recognised as one of the most nightmarish, yet convincing, nutjobs in film history. Bloom is highly driven and intelligent, and quick to pick up on things, but it’s made clear that he goes beyond that to the point of obsessiveness. What could be considered positive traits in other people is shown here as detriments, because Bloom is basically all obsession – it’s 110% or nothing with him. At no point do we get a sense that he’s able to interact with people in any sort of humanistic way. And, of course, his deranged way of thinking manifests itself on a number of occasions later on in the film to seriously fucked-up ends. It’s the perfect cinematic portrayal of a sociopath. Looking back on the film, you realise that there were other deliberate decisions made by Gilroy and Gyllenhaal to sell the character’s sickness: he rarely blinks, and I’m pretty sure we never see him eat or drink. He’s presented as an alien, or perhaps more aptly some sort of night-bound insect thanks to his startlingly emaciated frame, bug-eyes and jerky mannerisms.

But Nightcrawler’s success isn’t purely thanks to Gyllenhaal’s performance. The whole cast are rock solid, particularly Russo as Bloom’s business partner Nina who, to be honest, is almost as bad as Bloom, insofar as she’s an enabler of his sordid deeds purely for self-preservation. That she comes across as an unpleasant person is really saying something considering that Gilroy gives us an early scene with Gyllenhaal which generates a hell of a lot of sympathy for her character. That particular restaurant scene between Bloom and Nina is one of the most squirm-inducing scenes in recent memory. Think the most awkward, cringeworthy scenes in the UK version of The Office and you get the idea. Riz Ahmed, as Bloom’s underachieving partner Rick, acts as a nice counterbalance against Bloom’s insanity, even though Rick is basically a stand-in for us, the audience, as far as morality goes.

Top marks, too, across the board from a production standpoint. There’s a solid, pulsing score from James Newton Howard that, at times, seems to deliberately contravene what’s happening on screen in a bid to make Bloom out as something of a traditional Hollywood hero when he’s anything but. And the luminous night-time cinematography from Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Robert Elswit is glorious. Seriously, Nightcrawler has the best night cinematography I’ve ever seen, with far more clarity and unearthly beauty than seen in Collateral or Miami Vice’s lauded night shots. The editing (by another Gilroy, John) is perfect, whether it’s during a nail-biting chase scene (which, brilliantly, is a filmed chase of a filmed chase) or a simple dialogue exchange between two characters. Nightcrawler is beautifully paced – no one scene goes on too long, and there are no flabby parts. Nightcrawler is, for lack of a better word, muscular.

By now you’ve probably come understand that this isn’t a film for everyone. It deals with some extremely heavy material, not in an overly graphic way, but it’s the deeply unpleasant tone of Nightcrawler that will surely put off some viewers. As the film amps up the tension in the final act, we become witness to how far Bloom truly will go in the pursuit of money, fame and influence, and the film gets really dark in places. Given that there aren’t many redeeming characters to root for, this isn’t exactly what you’d call a date movie.

In much the same way that Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is an awkward, wince-inducing critique of show business and the cult of celebrity, Nightcrawler is its diseased equal so far as the news industry goes. And the comparison between Nightcrawler and King of Comedy is actually more apt than with Taxi Driver, because De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin is similarly self-absorbed, clinical and obsessive in his methods, and didn’t give a shit about who he hurt to get to the top. Travis Bickle, in his own demented way, at least wanted to redeem himself by saving Iris the prostitute. It’s hard to think that Louis Bloom would ever give a damn about anyone other than himself.

Taut, enthralling and as skin-crawling as the best horror films, Nightcrawler is like a punch to the gut. Jake Gyllenhaal’s fearless, astonishing performance is only one of Nightcrawler’s many positives, but it certainly is the film’s most potent weapon, fashioning as convincing a screen sociopath as you’re ever likely to encounter: an odious nightbound insectoid with a bug-like visage and a disturbing amount of enthusiasm for his distasteful new profession. Glorious night-time cinematography captures all the grime and sleaze as you’re ever likely to need. It’s likely to be way too dark for the Academy’s taste, but if there was any justice in the world then Nightcrawler would walk away with a swag of Oscars in its sweaty, blood-stained hands.
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