By Tressa Eckerman, Contributor
There was a time when most people thought of Jake Gyllenhaal as nothing but a pretty face. It seems like that time is finally passing. It began sometime after “Brokeback Mountain” and he started developing into an actor that seemed so everyman, so capable of dropping into a role. There was David Fincher’s masterpiece “Zodiac,” where he played a suspicious cartoonist on the trail of a serial killer. He gave the year’s most underrated performance in 2013’s “Prisoners” and was exceptional in David Ayer’s “End of Watch.” And now here’s “Nightcrawler.” With a relatively short filmography, it may be hyperbolic to say, but there is a very good chance that this is his finest, all-consuming and most riveting performance yet.
Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a sickly looking pale looser who stumbles his way into a freelance cameraman position. He has no qualms about crossing crime scene tape to get a better angle and a better tape to sell to Nina, (Rene Russo) the aging, desperate head of a fourth-rate Los Angeles TV station. When the film first starts, he’s a petty thief not above brutal violence. Where Lou fails at most things, he realizes quickly that he actually has a particular talent for filming senseless crime and he starts making good money, and pushing himself further than before. He even hires an intern, a homeless kid Rick (newcomer Riz Ahmed, spectacular here). Rick has absolutely no idea what he’s getting himself into with Lou, and neither do we. By the time he’s moving dead bodies and beating cops to bloody crime scenes, we have a pretty good idea what kind of man he is.
There are some obvious references to movies like “Collateral” and “Network” and this film is sure to stand alongside those brilliant films. The film is a horrifying yet strangely funny (in the darkest way possible) examination of our “if it bleeds, it leads” culture. “Nightcrawler” is the portrait of a millennial gone way wrong on his path to success. Lou is one of those infuriating people who feels as if he deserves success and is unable to discern between that desire and moral compass, or lack thereof. He operates at night, holds his moral relativism like a shield and when he’s confronted with his wrongdoings, he has a kind of blind faith in himself that makes him believe he is the one being victimized, not the other way around.
On one hand, it’s disgusting, yet Gyllenhaal imbues him with enough mystery and contagious desire that your sitting right there with him, you’re looking through that camera lens. You don’t necessarily want him to succeed, but you also don’t want him to fail. He’s just so persistent. Lou spouts off enough Tony Robbins-style self-help nonsense that you both roll your eyes and smile.
As an audience member, you can see Lou’s crimes and inevitable collapse coming a mile away but what’s so brilliant about “Nightcrawler” is the way it gets to that conclusion. You know it’s going to be bad but how the heck is he going to shoot himself in the foot? There are a number of scenes where Lou just keeps talking and you can’t help but cringe. If he’d just shut-up or he knew how to relate to other people, he might not end up in prison. Then again, very few people in the film are concerned with activities.
That’s the thing though: Lou isn’t really human. Gyllenhaal has likened his character to a coyote, an animal who is a scavenger, willing to do anything to survive. Much has been made about his 30 pound weight loss, and it’s far from a gimmick. The weight loss has reshaped his entire face, those famous blue eyes bulging and wild. His wiry body twitches and he smiles at all the wrong times. He starts off trying to pretend that he’s just like everyone else but deep down he knows he’s not. It’s not a spoiler to say that the film concludes with a shocking act of violence, and an exceptionally filmed car chase. Within the first five minutes of being in Lou’s company, we know things are going to end terribly.
Director Dan Gilroy has made an exceptional film. “Nightcrawler” is a brilliant look at our camera-obsessed 24-hour news cycle society and the whole thing is ruled by a career best performance by Gyllenhaal.