Basest instinct

Gyllenhaal delivers genuinely unnerving performance in Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler: Brave journalist, shining a light?
  • Nightcrawler: Brave journalist, shining a light?

Don’t let his unblinking doe-eyes, hands-in-pockets demeanor, and proverbial gift of gab fool you. Within ten minutes of meeting Nightcrawler protagonist Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), screenwriter and first-time director Dan Gilroy casts a purposeful light on his character’s basest instincts. A post-credit off-screen altercation ends with an unarmed security guard’s watch strapped to Louis’s wrist.

Even more damnable: with only the televised flicker of a Danny Kaye vehicle to guide him, Louis sits, alone, scanning his empty apartment for someone to join in his amusement. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who find nothing even remotely entertaining about Kaye and idiots.

Other than that, all we’re given in the way of backstory is this: Louis’s entrepreneurial skills currently allow him to eke out a living selling manhole covers and other assorted pilfered scrap metal to junkyards. Everyone is wise to his game. When asked if there is a job to be had, the foreman laughs off the notion of hiring a thief.

A fiery head-on collision proves to be Louis’s pathway to stardom. Soon after witnessing Bill Paxton and his crew of professional video stringers capture the dramatic rescue and sell the footage to local TV news outlets, Louis is hooked. He pawns a stolen bicycle for a low-grade camcorder, appoints a semi-coherent street hustler (Riz Ahmed) as his aide de camp, and in no time, his short films lead the lowest-rated morning newscast in L.A. County. His rapidly expanding oeuvre boasts such celebrated works as “Drunk Mom Kills Biker” and “Toddler Stabbed.”

What follows is a gritty urban comedy noir, a scathing, Network-worthy disembowelment of television news-gatherers that will leave you craving a shower. In its own disturbing way, the film bolsters a fear that’s rattled my core since first it became clear that digital was here to stay: every schmuck with a video camera thinks they can direct.

But Louis isn’t just any schmuck. He’s a fast learner with a sharp eye, as quick to master the art of proper framing as he is to memorize the police dispatcher’s code book. And, like any great visual storyteller who finds himself painted into a corner, Louis soon develops a flair for taking poetic license.

One perceived “you don’t really expect me to buy that” moment nagged at me for almost ten minutes. Shame on me and good for Gilroy. There’s no better feeling than a smart filmmaker besting a smart-ass critic.

Has it really been 15 years since Renee Russo last made this strong an impact on movie screens? (A mere seven films separate The Thomas Crown Affair and Nightcrawler. Welcome home!) As Louis’s prime network contact and future love (if you can call it that) interest, you’ll delight in watching Russo’s ballsy news director slowly bend under the constraints of Louis’s ever-increasing demand for final cut.

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Nightcrawler 5.0

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Oscar season will soon be upon us. Rumor mills already buzz with talk of Gyllenhaal snagging a nomination. It’s a terrific, genuinely unnerving performance, a tough character to pull off, and one that the actor never breaks.

Cinematographer Robert Elswit’s exquisite neon-at-night, moonlight-in-the-palms lighting and James Newton Howard’s relaxed score cooperate with Gilroy’s vision of a city that “shines brightest at night.”

It’s rare — and extraordinarily gratifying — when a film leaves me little to complain about. No American film I’ve seen this year has put me this close in touch with why I fell in love with movies in the first place. The second viewing was even better than the first. Can’t wait to squeeze in a few more theatrical visits before giving the Blu-ray a home.

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