Lou Bloom is a classic movie psychopath. Irrepressibly manic and willing to do anything to get what he desires, Jake Gyllenhaal breathes authentic life into this unbelievable character in Nightcrawler, from first time director Dan Gilroy. And what does Lou desires most? To move up the ranks of video production for local television, an admittedly modest goal that you wouldn’t think would require much sociopathic behavior to achieve. But here Gyllenhaal demonstrates that there’s a way to be crazy in any given situation.
Lou is confident, shrewd, and selfish — a deadly combination. Oh, and he’s also incredibly creepy. His insanity is immediately reminiscent of Christian Bale’s immortal performance as Patrick Bateman and at his best Gyllenhaal evokes shades of Heath Ledger’s Joker. There’s one major difference: American Psycho and The Dark Knight, which contained those legendary lunatics, were exceptional movies. In contrast, no matter how good of a performance Gyllenhaal gives, he’s stuck in a mediocre movie.
For starters, none of the other actors get close to the kind of A-plus acting Gyllenhaal exhibits on Lou’s journey to get footage from (and manipulate) crime scenes before the intervention of police or rival videographers. Riz Ahmed, playing a broke slacker who Lou takes under his wing as ‘intern’, is the only other notable performer here, though his character serves mostly as a sound board for Gyllenhaal to bounce dialogue off of. Bill Paxton is even more severely wasted.
Meanwhile, Rene Russo, as an older woman in charge of the news show Lou works for (and whom Lou for some reason wants nothing more than to sleep with), has absolutely zero chemistry with Gyllenhaal. Russo doesn’t seem to know what kind of movie this is; clearly it wants to be a smart satire with an edgy thriller vibe, which Ahmed and Gyllenhaal get. Every time Russo is on screen, she seems to think she’s in some sort of bizarre melodrama.
This basically reflects the biggest problem I had with Nightcrawler: it has a very hard time finding a consistent mood. It jumps back and forth between being a darkly comic lampooning of the media’s sensationalism and a serious character study of a deeply egotistical nutjob. The unhinged, schizophrenic nature of the film may match Lou’s personality, but I found that whatever message the film was trying to transmit gets lost in its unwieldy tone.
But I have the sinking feeling this was by design. See, the message of the film boils down to nothing more than a flimsy, “look how messed up humans are! We love watching violence and crime!” This isn’t new; nowadays, it’s a particularly antiquated sentiment that doesn’t require fiction to understand. Just spend some time online. When Network told us the same thing back in 1976, it was fresh. Moreover, that movie actually explored these issues, whereas Nightcrawler finds is sufficient merely to raise questions.
In order to distract from how little the movie has to say (as well as from how generally lacking in visual style it is), Gilroy smartly puts the focus on Gyllenhaal and how awesome his acting is as much as possible. It works, too. Whenever he’s on screen, with his gaunt figure and his paranoid eyes, I was easily distracted and engaged. He feels too cartoonish to be real, but too real to be in a movie where everything else feels so fake.
The news station in particular never comes off as a real place, especially since we usually only see it operating at night. The news anchors sound like actors pretending to do the news… in other words, the exact opposite of what actors are supposed to accomplish. All of the newsroom scenes are strangely disconnected from the rest of the movie, and oddly enough feel like something out of a much older movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nightcrawler is eventually looked back on as camp.
Granted, the movie still has some intense sequences, including a well-choreographed car chase. The movie also begins by efficiently delivering the message that Lou is capable of some pretty terrible things, and it echoes throughout the entire film. There’s always the possibility that he could snap. And while the film may not look all that special, there are some particularly beautiful shots of Los Angeles that sells the location.
But it’s a classic case of too little, too late. Gone Girl, still in theaters as I write this, was a superior example of an edgy, cynical, noire-inflected satire of media sensationalism that still managed to feel true-to-life. It accomplished the same things as Nightcrawler except it dived deeper, contained plenty of other thematic material, was aesthetically outstanding, and had a supporting cast that could mostly keep up with its lead (if not outshine him). And that’s just a recent example, barring older but more direct comparisons like Ace in the Hole or To Die For.
Lucky for Nightcrawler, they got Jake Gyllenhaal. He alone takes the film from being a well-intentioned but amateurish, uninspired movie to being a well-intentioned but amateurish, uninspired movie with an amazing lead performance.
Score: 3 out of 5