Jake Gyllenhaal has large eyes. I know that’s not a particularly deep criticism, but it’s the one thought that kept flittering through my mind when I watched Nightcrawler, a film that functions as though Network, American Psycho, and The King of Comedy had a productive three-way one dark, grim night. I’ve noticed his eyes before, how intense and obsessive they appear in David Fincher’s Zodiac and how haunted and lonely they seemed in Prisoners. Both of these films portray him as a solitary, desperate character who loses himself in an obsessive quest, his boy scout looks masking the on the outside loner resting beneath the surface. However, in the Dan Gilroy-helmed Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal’s eyes, resting in a gaunt face with skin that seems too tightly stretched across his skull, appear lifeless. Instead of revealing hidden obsessiveness, his eyes reveal the empty, sociopathic shell his character truly is. Nightcrawler is a fascinating film, both a heartless, cynical, darkly comic character study about a soulless face in a soulless Los Angeles crowd and a satirical expose of the “if it bleeds, it leads” philosophy of the news world.
Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, who we first meet in a chance encounter with a security guard while Bloom attempts to cut away fencing to sell to a scrap yard. The results of that encounter are merely hinted at, in much the same way as a female encounter Patrick Bateman has in American Psycho is implied rather than stated outright. Bloom’s a small-time thief who wants to be something more. One night, he spots a car wreck in which police are attempting to pull a young woman from the burning car. As he watches the scene, two men (one of whom is Bill Paxton, oozing oily sleaze) arrive in a van, complete with video equipment. They film the scene and proceed to sell their footage to the highest bidding TV news station. In the course of a couple of days, Bloom has purchased a radio police scanner and a camcorder, hired an assistant named Rick (well-played by Riz Ahmed), who has no idea how deranged his new boss is and only figures it out when he’s in too deep to extract himself from Bloom’s clutches. He starts selling footage to Nina (Rene Russo), a local news station’s morning news director who thinks morals are paintings on walls and gore raises ratings. She thinks Bloom’s the best nightcrawler (aka amateur photographers who video the most violent news footage), because he gets closer to the crime scene that others will and doesn’t seem haunted by the footage he captures.
Yet, it’s only a matter of time before simply filming crime scenes while the police attempt to clean up the mess isn’t enough. Soon, he’s moving bodies to make his shots appear more effective, breaking into homes to film police interview subjects, and resorting to bodily harm to take out the competition. However, it’s a crime scene at which he beats the police to the scene that gives Bloom his bargaining chip and sets the rest of the film’s events in motion. He doesn’t want to be thought of as some sleazy parasite. He wants respectability. He wants the news station to bill him as a production company and a “professional news gathering service.” He wants prestige, he wants respect, and he wants to control and dominate the ambitious, gore-driven Nina.
There are two different films warring for screen time in Nightcrawler. One is the King of Comedy, Taxi Driver-esque character study centered around the moral black hole that is Lou Bloom. Other films have featured a looming, lurking Jake Gyllenhaal, but here he’s genuinely unsettling. Constantly shrouded in half-shadows, his large eyes peering out of a lean, gaunt face with a smile that looks so genuinely unnerving because there’s so obviously no warmth behind it, he’s a character that appears from his first scene like he’s only around to make your day worse. There’s a point in which he states, “What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them,” a line that could be the character’s central thesis. In a film of terrible opportunists, Bloom emerges as the most soulless and amoral of the bunch, and much of the film’s dark comedy comes from Bloom acting like a 1950s entrepreneur, spouting “go-get-’em” slogans like he’s shooting to be the next CEO rather than a an individual who falls below paparazzi on the despicability meter. Where the film falters, unfortunately, is as a satire of the news industry. While the footage Bloom sells does look like footage you could see on the nightly news, the satire seems too obvious and dated to be effective. Rene Russo’s character (through no fault of her own) emerges as too broad a caricature to really work in the film, and the fact that she’s not instantly unnerved by how obviously creepy and unsettling Bloom is makes her appear almost laughably unobservant. Ultimately, though, it’s Gyllenhaal’s film to carry, and carry it he does. The film is worth seeing for the seedy descent into the black hole that is Lou Bloom. The film soars when he’s on screen, and he’s onscreen for most of the film. As the film winds down, the audience is both on the edge of its seat and in a constant state of unease. I can’t say its a film I enjoyed, as I’m uncertain it’s a film meant to be enjoyed, but the film kept me intrigued from the opening scene to its closing frames. It’s a remarkable, if flawed, achievement.
Check out the trailer below: