By Jacob Solis
“If you want to win the lottery, you have to buy a ticket.”
So says Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a sociopath and petty thief desperately seeking work in a world where no one is hiring. Just as he leaves yet another failed job interview, Bloom has an encounter with fate when he sees a horrific car crash and has a run-in with a callous and jaded nightcrawler (Bill Paxton).
These nightcrawlers are freelance cameramen who sell footage of salacious breaking news, car accidents, shootings and other grisly happenings, to local news stations for a profit. Ever the opportunist, Bloom is instantly taken by the idea of nightcrawling and quickly gets his hands on a cheap camera to get in the game.
Lou soon manages to sell his first footage to Nina (Rene Russo), a struggling news director for the lowest rated station in Los Angeles, and a star is born. Lou’s income climbs exponentially, and he buys a better camera, a better car and even an assistant. But, in Lou’s mind, he is still at the bottom of the ladder and no obstacle, physical or moral, will stop him from getting the most shocking footage and from achieving personal wealth and acclaim.
The plot unfolded without a hitch. Lou was never an upstanding citizen, but his moral depravity revealed itself slowly as he went down the rabbit hole of exploitative media.
“Nightcrawler,” Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, shines bright as both a taught thriller and sharp satire. Glimmering shots of Los Angeles at night set the scene for the gruesome accidents and crime scenes that saturated the film.
Part of this must be attributed to the wonderful cinematography of Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood”), who makes L.A. look stunning. Palm trees swaying in the wind, stunning mountain roads and strangely beautiful urban sprawl ⎯ all grace the screen in a cornucopia of visual grace that soothes the eyes from start to finish.
Not only was the cinematography magnificent, but Gyllenhaal’s acting was phenomenal. Gyllenhaal gives an electrifying and downright unsettling performance in his role as a depraved and cunning sociopath. His gaunt face and hollow eyes never ceased to send chills through the spine, but were countered by the darkly amusing slew of business idioms.
That was the real brilliance of Gyllenhaal’s performance. He was, through and through, the consummate sociopath. Using meaningless small talk and hollow jargon, Gyllenhaal crafted a personality of someone who wasn’t in tune with any semblance of empathy.
Rene Russo and Bill Paxton also gave unexciting performances as news director Nina Romina and Lou’s chief rival Joe Loder, although neither was of the same caliber as Gyllenhaal. However, this can be chalked up to the fact that neither of their characters were as fleshed out, or nearly as interesting, as Gyllenhaal’s.
The film’s weakest link was unarguably Riz Ahmed, who played Lou’s hapless assistant Rick. Rick is a borderline homeless man and transient who joins Lou on his business venture after Lou gives him the promise of a job. From then on, Rick serves as a sort of everyman to counteract Lou’s madness, and provides a good amount of the film’s comic relief.
In this respect, Ahmed does fine, but considering how well the other actors played their parts, Ahmed just isn’t up to par. When Lou’s words drip with menace or when death and danger loom on the horizon, Rick looks scared, but not as terrified as he should be. It weighed heavily on the mind after the film was over.
The film’s script, also done by Gilroy, is a thought-provoking critique on journalism in the modern era and is, for the most part, well done. Gilroy does his best to show moral bankruptcy, rather than tell it outright, and even provides an occasional laugh. The pacing is excellent and, even though every character is a bitter critique of society, each of them remains within the bounds of reality, never straying into caricature.
The problem is that his message could sometimes be too on-the-nose, as though he was worried the audience wouldn’t get it. The film swings from being wonderfully subtle to downright patronizing, and by the end, it detracted some from the film’s remarkable lesson.
Overall though, “Nightcrawler” is an exceptional take on the modern media and today’s sensationalist society that moves past a few stumbles to give an engaging look at what happens when a sociopath sets his sights on the American Dream.
Jacob Solis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.