Director Dan Gilroy’s tremendous debut is about the moral and ethical folly of unchecked ambition. Anyone who has seen Jake Gyllenhaal’s films of late (End of Watch, Prisoner, Enemy) will know that he’s as hungry as ever as an actor, taking challenging roles and making them his own, disappearing before re-materializing months later, inhabiting an altogether different being each time. “Nightcrawler” is so far the apex of this career trajectory.
Gyllenhaal lost 20-30 pounds to play Lou Bloom, a coyote of a man roaming the streets of L.A. at night in search of self-improvement, usually in the midst of beautiful nighttime photography by the great Robert Elswit. With gaunt cheekbones, slick jawline, and sunken eyes, he is the personification of hunger, and it’s the best performance of his career. Bloom’s motto is “if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket,” and sure enough, “Nightcrawler” is a subtle allegory for what the inert economy has wrought upon America, conjuring desperation and thus encouraging the sort of wormy tactics that Bloom uses to manipulate further success. The film spares us any thorough psychological analysis and keeps it simple. In one scene Bloom argues with his hapless assistant who’s fed up with the way Lou runs his business. “You don’t understand people,” he tells him. Later, Bloom retorts “did it ever occur to you that it’s not that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?” In addition to being a terrific character study, the film is a scathing if not completely successful indictment of television news. The “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality presented here, while true to life, is such a familiar theme when examining the media that it serves more as comedic background noise than it does relevant social commentary. Nevertheless, this comedy serves as the backdrop for some of the film’s best scenes between Bloom and the news exec of his ratings-starved, go-to network, played by Renee Russo in an outstanding return to form. Bill Paxton shows up as a rival freelance cameraman, seemingly reprising his role from “Twister” while simultaneously channeling the spirit of Hudson from “Aliens.” Bloom’s behavior gradually escalates, leading to various hairy situations and physical encounters that leave many of those “close” to him damaged, either physically (Paxton) or emotionally (Russo).
The movie isn’t enthralling because Lou Bloom is a sociopath, it’s enthralling because there’s a little bit of Lou Bloom in all of us. He is ambition if left unchecked. A scene where Bloom arrives at a fatal car accident and moves one of the bodies to attain a better camera angle is quickly followed by him getting said angle with a triumphant look on his face so familiar to me, I couldn’t help but smile. Despite the character’s unethical and sometimes murderous behavior, we’d be lying if we said we couldn’t relate to his goals. As disturbing as it is, “Nightcrawler” holds up a broken mirror to our collective hungers and aspirations.