Published on November 11th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Summary: Dan Gilroy makes his directorial breakthrough at 55-years-old and it's as intense as anything you'll watch. Jake Gyllenhaal turns in a career-best performance as a frighteningly driven TV news videographer. A few old-fashioned filmmaking devices hold it back from perfection.
R | 117 min.
Director & Screenplay: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton
Distribution: Open Road Films
I knew I was probably going to like Nightcrawler from the moment I saw the last name of its writer/director. Dan Gilroy’s brother Tony was responsible for writing and directing one of my favorite pictures of the last decade, Michael Clayton; he also penned the Jason Bourne trilogy, arguably the most game-changing series in action filmmaking since Die Hard. So I was willing to bet any film coming from the Gilroy family would be something to take notice of. Now I only wish I’d taken that bet to a bookie.
As intense and pointed as any project that’s been attached to his family name, Nightcrawler is a movie that will leave you confused on whom to root for, and it might just inspire you in its own twisted way.
Set under the darkened skies of Los Angeles, in the hyper-competitive world of television news, this film harbors a gloomy vision of the American Dream. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is bound to go down as one of recent cinema’s most memorable anti-heroes — but calling him a hero of any kind would be difficult for even the most ruthless devotee to capitalism.
Gilroy introduces us to Lou by having the audience witness him break into a construction site to steal anything he can later hawk at the scrapyard; when he’s caught, Bloom savagely attacks a security guard and takes his watch. We are left to wonder whether the victim survived as editor John Gilroy (Dan’s twin) suddenly cuts to Lou cruising in his decrepit car with a load of scrap metals visible in the backseat. As the film progresses, we don’t hold out much hope that the guard made it home that night.
Lou is savage in his drive to succeed. After fatefully pulling up to a near-fatal car crash on the highway one night, he sees a crew of freelance videographers — or nightcrawlers, as they’re known here — getting close to the gore in hopes to later sell their graphic footage to the local news station that will pay most. He’s suddenly found his calling in life. From here, the picture focuses on Lou’s progression in his newfound career, as he grows a professional relationship with LA’s lowest-rated station and its “vampire shift” news director, Nina (Rene Russo – Gilroy’s wife).
Cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) deserves to be nominated for an Oscar for his work here. Nightcrawler is a movie about shooting video — with Lou even describing some techniques for best doing so in one of his many passioned, purposeful mini-monologues — and Elswit keeps your eye for the entire 2 hours. We spend a lot of time looking at tight shots inside the car as Lou and his homeless “intern” Rick (Riz Ahmed) navigate the streets of LA in search of violent breaking stories. These shots are not boring though, and show purpose as we hardly ever see both characters in a two-shot, instead switching from close-up to close-up to insinuate a philosophical distance between them.
“Why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue,” Lou says in one of the myriad scenes where he comes off like a nightmarish Tony Robbins. Gyllenhaal plays this character brilliantly, assuring us that Lou is indeed a sociopath by the way he measures his every move, including dialogue. He seems to plot everything he says before dictating it with the confidence of a four-star general. He’s a control freak that we know little of in terms of background. The audience never meets anyone claiming to be Lou’s friends or family; the only reference to his childhood was a lesson taught by his parents, advising, “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”
Lou is a character full of self-delusion but absolutely zero self-loathing. He’s the type to pick himself up by the bootstraps, if only to bring those boots down onto a competitor’s head with a deafening thud. He regularly steals from people, although vehemently denying one character’s claims that he’s a thief. He names his freelance video service Video Production News, an appropriate monicker due to his habit of rearranging — or “producing” — crime scenes to look better on camera, if he arrives before police. This is the kind of lead character which causes complicated feelings to arise in an audience, leaving you to wonder if you’re rooting for Lou to succeed or to crash and burn.
His performance in Nightcrawler marks the best work thus far in Jake Gyllenhaal’s well-established career. While he was outstanding in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, he was largely overshadowed by the powerful Heath Ledger. This is Gyllenhaal’s movie, and his alone. The supporting characters leave something to be desired, mostly only serving as obstacles in the way of Lou’s steamroller ambition.
Russo’s Nina represents the most fully-developed secondary player in the picture, as we see a link between her own professional desperation and that of Lou. Bill Paxton shows up as a competing cameraman with a few memorable lines (“Fuck you, twerp!”), but his strongest scene — and perhaps the film’s most chilling — comes in a silent exchange between he and Gyllenhaal, when the shock in Paxton’s eyes is enough to make you shiver.
I worked in television news, doing essentially the exact same job Lou does in this film and I have to say, Gilroy’s script is remarkably accurate. Although I never used or heard the term “nightcrawler” to describe my position (“first responders” was our preferred nomenclature), the practices followed by Lou and his colleagues are dead-on, as is the film’s satirical look at local news practices. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is the edict dictated by Paxton’s Joe to Lou in an early exchange. That’s a lesson the latter learns is true, spurring him to stalk the police radio scanner exclusively for the most violent crimes.
Nightcrawler has a lot to say about the TV news business, as Gilroy’s script pokes holes in the very real practice of choosing stories based on the victim’s race (“A (violent crime) in Watts is hardly news, right?,” Nina rhetorically prods Lou), as well as the choking pressure felt in a newsroom during ratings sweeps periods. But I did think it was silly that the only videographers at any of the film’s crime scenes were freelancers. LA is the nation’s second-largest media market and I surely have to think the city’s stations have enough money to hire overnight crews to monitor breaking stories.
As the film wraps up, it features one of the most exciting and intense car chase sequences you’ll ever see. As Lou’s Dodge Challenger races through city streets, ignoring red lights to keep up with police as they pursue a murder suspect, Elswit’s cameras seem to be everywhere, not allowing you to breathe for about 10 minutes. The entire climax of Nightcrawler is executed with what was surely meticulous planning by Gilroy and his crew. This movie certainly shouldn’t be filed in the ‘Action’ section but if you only caught the final 20 minutes, you might think you were watching the next Bourne flick.
While that flashy sequence will likely bring back fond memories of 2011’s Drive, this picture unfortunately lacks the cutting-edge soundtrack of the former. I was underwhelmed by James Newton Howard’s score, which sounded old-fashioned and safe to my ears. Missing is the sonic power we’ve heard from Howard’s recent work in the Dark Knight and The Hunger Games series and instead we get one of his most forgettable offerings.
This movie marks the exciting start of a new phase in the career of 55-year-old Dan Gilroy. It’s rare that someone of that age produces their breakthrough picture but I can’t help looking forward to what lessons he’ll have to teach young Hollywood in the coming years.