Jake Gyllenhaal lost 30 pounds for his new movie, Nightcrawler, and the result is simple and eerie, much like the film itself. He appears to be wearing a Jake Gyllenhaal mask—all cheekbones, sallow complexion and unblinking laser-beam eyes.
His character is Lou Bloom, a freelance L.A. crime scene videographer. Is this man human, exactly? Lou’s small talk leans heavy on the self-help axioms and self-directed pep rallies; it’s as if he were an alien learning to pass for earthling by watching one too many TED Talks.
We know Lou’s a criminal; in the first scene, he beats up a security guard and steals his watch, which dangles awkwardly off his skinny wrist the rest of the movie. Lou is just another L.A. casualty of anonymity—lost and searching for work, an identity of some kind, something he can “learn and grow into.” He finds what he’s looking for, thanks to the needs of a ratings-starved morning news producer played by Rene Russo. Even if Lou’s social skills are on par with Travis Bickle’s in Taxi Driver, L.A. always makes room for its ambitious sociopaths, especially if they can pass for normal when necessary.
Photographed by Robert Elswit, whose images of California in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) are among the indelible sights of contemporary moviemaking, Nightcrawler comes from the writer-director Dan Gilroy, who is married to Russo in real life and whose brother, Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), is one of the film’s producers. The protagonist’s rise in his newly adopted field is rooted in pain, suffering and attractively gory news footage. At first Lou works alone, going up against a veteran crime-scene videographer played, with extra relish, by Bill Paxton. Arriving second to a blazing house fire or a fatal crash on the 110 freeway—this means Lou does not eat.
But he’s a quick study. Lou hires a so-called intern, streetwise and apparently homeless Rick (Riz Ahmed), to monitor the police scanner and try to stay alive as Lou screams across town to get to the latest home invasion. Just as Lou evokes memories of Taxi Driver, the news producer played by Russo recalls Faye Dunaway in Network. She’s stuck at the lowest-rated outlet in the L.A. morning-show clutter. Lou provides her with one juicy bit of footage after another. Then we learn what Gilroy’s protagonist is willing to do in the name of advancement.
So many character studies pretend to take chances but end up making easy decisions for the sake of audience comfort. Nightcrawler stays pretty tough throughout. The street scenes, lonely canyon roads and shadowy interiors come from both the movies and from peculiar corners of the real L.A., so mundane in its capacity for everyday evil. Gyllenhaal clearly enjoys finding the voices and impulses for this composite human being, this not-quite-human human. Despite the familiarity of its themes—the bottom-feeding news media; the pathology born of extreme isolation and a little too much online time; the American can-do spirit, perverted into something poisonous—Gilroy’s clever, skeezy little noir is worth a prowl.
Nightcrawler (R): ★★★✩✩