Jake Gyllenhaal haunts Nightcrawler like a ghost who’s seen a ghost, his face gaunt and his eyes bulging. His character, a freelance news videographer named Lou Bloom, floats along the late-night streets of Los Angeles, hoping to come across graphic car crashes and the like. Lou swoops in, eyes gleaming with both horror and delight, gets the footage he needs and disappears. He’s ghoulish.
We get a sense of this from the first moment we see him, stealing chain-link fencing in order to sell it at a scrap yard. A security guard pulls up, and in the glare of the headlights we notice Lou eerily practicing his smile, getting ready to try and talk his way out of the situation. It’s my favorite moment in what might be Gyllenhaal’s best screen performance.
Gyllenhaal has always been especially good at playing characters on the edge (Donnie Darko, Jarhead, Bubble Boy), and Lou Bloom is decidedly out there. Allegedly affable, there’s something oddly insistent and manic about the motor-mouth way he tries to ingratiate himself with others, including that security guard. It’s as if he’s a robot programmed for human interaction. It turns out his lack of empathy is perfect for a “nightcrawler,” which is slang for videographers like Lou. As Bill Paxton’s competitor tells him early on, “It’s a flaming *#@hole of a job.”
Gyllenhaal has always been especially good at playing characters on the edge.
Nightcrawler isn’t really a study of journalistic ethics, however, because right from the start it’s clear that Lou is beyond them. And while it’s disturbing to watch the lengths to which he will go to get “good” footage – dragging a car crash victim’s body into better lighting, for instance – the movie is most terrifying when Lou is in conversation with someone. As he jabbers on in an attempt to placate them, you can see he’s coldly processing their value to him in terms of his immediate needs.
The movie’s creepiest conversation takes place between Lou and Nina (Rene Russo), the news director at the local station that has been buying most of his footage and increasing their ratings as a result. Lou feels he has proven himself to the point that he now holds the upper hand – both professionally and sexually – and tries to force Nina into a decidedly uncomfortable personal corner. Every instinct tells her to flee from this guy, and she puts up a good fight, but then Russo lets a flicker of defeat cross her face and you know that she knows she’s trapped.
Much of Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy, is structured as a series of negotiations, with Lou’s cold logic always seeming to win the upper hand. (“I’m a very fast learner,” he tells Nina at one point. “We had a conversation when I specifically mentioned that. Do you remember that?”) After Lou hires an assistant (Riz Ahmed), he continually chatters to the guy about how his career should progress according to Lou’s elaborate business plan. At one point the employee just looks at Lou and says, “You got to talk to people like they’re real human beings.” The point of the movie is that he can’t.
I suppose the fact that this allows Lou to become a valuable commodity in TV news could count as satire. Yet as a media critique, Nightcrawler is a bit dated (local news seems small potatoes in this age of broadcast beheadings). Thankfully Gyllenhaal’s performance brings an added, innerving dimension. He makes Nightcrawler a media critique that’s also a portrait of a potential serial killer.