Dan Gilroy’s latest, Nightcrawler, has a lot on its troubled mind. It intertwines our national obsessions with voyeurism and stardom into a sociopathic nightmare from which you can’t awaken. At its churning center is the mesmerizing performance of Jake Gyllenhaal, who charms you with his infectious intensity, even as he ruthlessly manipulates everyone and everything around him. As the blood flows and the crimes accumulate, Gilroy traps us behind the camera as his passive accomplices. Welcome to the world of the Nightcrawler. Showering after you leave is highly recommended.
It’s ironic that cinema has benefitted so greatly from the recent television trend of wildly popular anti-heroes. A scoundrel like Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) couldn’t exist in a world without Tony Soprano and Walter White; men we are encouraged to embrace despite their oscillating moral compass. Bloom’s detachment from humanity gives him a unique perspective from most anti-heroes, who are usually men perpetrating evil in the name of family subsistence. His “flaming asshole of a job” requires him to capture the most intrusive, gruesome images imaginable, with fear-mongering news outlets only too eager to pay for the filth. Sheltered behind the camera, Bloom absolves himself from any societal codes of moral responsibility.
Bloom cruises the night with a police scanner and his browbeaten intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), whom he motivates through a mixture of passive-aggression and self-help platitudes. In fact, Bloom can recite self-help manuals like Bible scripture. The whites of his eyes piercing through the murky darkness, Gyllenhaal resembles some demented guru; a spiritual advisor who believes in nothing but coldhearted calculation. The chief purveyor of his smutty genius is Nina (Rene Russo), the nighttime news director for a Los Angeles television station solidly positioned at the bottom of the barrel. She’s like the Faye Dunaway character from Network, re-envisioned after years of mediocrity and paradigm shifts have killed everything but her pitiless will to survive. From the newsroom control booth, she screams out to terrified suburbanites, plastering her screen with Bloom’s inspired carnage.
The strength of Nightcrawler, its ambitious script, is also its biggest weakness. Gilroy intentionally makes Louis Bloom impossible to pin down. Sometimes he feels like a Gumpian character, wandering through life with wide-eyed awe and obliviousness. Other times he feels like a chameleon, pushing buttons until he achieves the next objective on his self-help, Google-generated checklist. Finally, he reveals his nature to be that of a bloodless sociopath, constantly reconfiguring his leverage dynamics to achieve maximum benefit. He survives because the moral creatures continue to underestimate his ruthlessness. By shifting Bloom’s personality all over the board, Gilroy creates a character capable of anything.
The results of Gilroy’s cheating are compulsively watchable but completely bereft of emotional attachment. While this accentuates the satirical and black comedy elements of Nightcrawler, it also makes it a decidedly cold affair. We don’t feel any emotional connection to Bloom or the other characters who inhabit this world. We merely watch in disbelief as the events unfold. That’s not to say Gilroy’s creation isn’t involving… far from it. The tension pegs off the scale as Bloom becomes ever more brazen with his manipulations. It’s the type of tension that makes even a car chase feel fresh and exciting, an almost impossible feat in modern cinema. Yet, there is no escaping the emptiness of Nightcrawler. It feels like an exercise in provocation; like a robot slapping your face when the correct algorithm is triggered.
Much of Nightcrawler’s energy comes from Gyllenhaal losing himself completely in Gilroy’s nightscape. It’s a fearless performance. Gyllenhaal revels in the ambiguity of his character, giving him an unhinged presence on the screen despite his cool exterior. You feel the tension of the gears grinding in his fevered brain. His patience and focus are rivaled only by his uncanny instincts for what motivates the ugliness inside all humans. If Louis Bloom ever married Amy from Gone Girl, they would be a power couple for the ages.
Ambitious films like Nightcrawler rely on the audience’s willingness to take a chance. At its heart, this is a black comedy populated by characters willing to say and do the unimaginable, who have no hope for redemption. We are not part of their story… we are merely observers. This is a glimpse into the apparatus that supplies our entertainment. As our needs become more perverse and extreme, the methodology to provide this entertainment must adapt. What kind of creature could possibly satisfy the most loathsome of human desires? Watch Nightcrawler if you dare to find out.