The best thing to ever happen to Jake Gyllenhaal’s career is “Prince of Persia.” A blockbuster flop, following years of auditioning for big budget projects, the sting of ‘Persia’ made the young actor finally realize Hollywood was trying to square peg him into cookie-cutter leading man roles. He almost immediately turned his back on that world, subsequently launching himself headfirst into independent movies where he could vanish into different, complicated and complex characters. If you’ve paid attention, Jake Gyllenhaal’s been revitalized for at least a few pictures now (“End of Watch,” “Prisoners” and “Enemy” to name a few), but a greater sense of confidence is growing, another layer of skin is being shed. This rejuvenation is turning into full-blown renaissance, and it flowers impressively in “Nightcrawler,” writer/director Dan Gilroy’s terrific and electric debut thriller.
In “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, an unemployed nocturnal scavenger foraging for whatever low-wage opportunities can be found underneath the sleeping hum of Los Angeles’ cityscape. With opportunities in short supply, he grows more and more desperate. A solitary gaunt figure, Bloom steals construction equipment, pawning anything he can get his hands on. One evening, during his after dark excursions of trying to turn a buck, Bloom unintentionally uncovers the subculture of nightcrawlers—freelance video stringers doing their own form of anxious hustling. Brash and unscrupulous, the nightcrawling bloodsport among these freelancers is to find the most gruesome and violent accidents, crashes, murders and mayhem, film it, and sell it to the highest bidder (morally bankrupt TV stations). Soaking it all up like a sponge, the hyper-observant Bloom quickly joins the fray and soon rises up the ranks. His tenacity, initiative and awkwardly manufactured poise catches the eye of Nina (Rene Russo), a graveyard shift news shark hungry for ratings. Past her prime, but impressed and in need of Bloom’s fanatical brazenness, a symbiotic, but poisonous relationship emerges. It will soon curdle over, just as Bloom’s extremism will takes him into morally dark crevices one can’t return from.
A bit slack at first, when Gilroy's thriller eventually picks up speed, it becomes a deliciously dark, cynical and riveting examination of struggle and suffering gone awry. Bloom’s a figure so divorced from everyday comforts that his constant adversity has created a twisted, unrecognizable figure. There’s tremendous social and moral texture throughout the drama, but the socio-economic commentary of the movie is fabric, not heavy handed accessory. And the provocative ethical breaches—savage and scathing in the latter half—give the movie its delectable and wicked bite.
However, the genius of “Nightcrawler,” implicit in Bloom’s namesake, is the alienated man was apparently always troubled; he just needed the right vocation to let his mania fully blossom. Gyllenhaal is a revelation once again, and the control of his instrument is a wonderful thing to witness. The character is unhinged, but precisely pitched. Unblinking and haunted, one imagines a rich back story for this character. While it's never explicitly stated, much is suggested by Gyllenhaal's fractured, on-the-edge performance and the environment around him; a lifetime of loneliness and isolation from an indifferent world that's about to crack and manifest itself in all kinds of ugly fissures. The harsh fluorescent brilliance of “Nightcrawler” is just how in tune Gyllenhaal, Gilroy and the movie are. Bloom and the movie slowly uncoil in tandem lock and step to unveil much more than an unsocialized loner who’s listened to too many of Tony Robbins' motivational speeches. But Gyllenhaal isn’t scene-chewing, and the humanity glimpsed early on is perhaps what makes his sinister transformation so creepy.
"A friend is a gift that you give yourself," Bloom says with a cracked smile at a critical moment to Russo. It's both a veiled threat and a deeper reveal of a personality far more sociopathic than initially exposed.
"Nightcrawler" has some slight issues before it find its rhythm in the form of clunky exposition, montages and on-the-nose thematic monologues. It’s unsure of itself at first. Even the excellent moody score by James Newton Howard takes time to synch up with the picture. It also takes some adjustment getting used to Gyllenhaal’s agitated maxims about success. But the latter is inherent to the character, a man so desperate for identity and to belong, he's created a faux narrative sales pitch to himself. And where these self-empowerment truisms begin and end with genuine belief and manipulative delusions are dangerously blurred. Bloom is a walking overture, espousing virtues about work ethic, determination and persistence as if he needs to believe it himself in order to survive the cruel and lonely existence he's lived for so long.
When he finally gets a taste of success, Bloom becomes a tyrannical psycho unleashed through sheer force of will. And what's rather brilliant about Gyllenhaal's (and the movie's) characterization of Bloom's personal revolution is that it is both frightening and darkly hilarious. The repetition of this theme and Bloom's insistent self-motivational orations can be off-putting at first, but once Gyllenhaal's go-for-broke turn connects, these speeches click into gear, and they can be delightfully mordant. You just need to speak Gilroy-ese and go with the flow of this hectic patois that's perhaps indebted to Paddy Chayefsky's "Network."
There's a terrific turning point midway where the movie kicks into a propulsive and uneasy high gear and becomes an intense (and very entertaining) thriller that never looks back. Gilroy's film constantly tests suspension of belief in this section, but it flies by so fast, and Gyllenhaal's wiry, wild-eyed immersion is so committed, it prevents the movie from going off the rails. And while Gilroy’s drama has the capacity to potentially wipeout in its second half, much of the pleasure of watching “Nightcrawler” is witnessing its daring high-wire act teeter on a razor's edge and yet gloriously stick the landing. The last act is deliriously thrilling, like watching a rickety roller coaster rise up on one set of wheels while sustaining itself on a broken track.
Shot with precision by the great Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood,” “Punch Drunk Love” “Michael Clayton”), "Nightcrawler" demonstrates the DPs great versatility; the movie is cold, eerie and yes, has a few nods to the dispassionate eye of Michael Mann. But perhaps what separates Elswit from the work of Mann's go-to DP Dante Spinotti, is the clarity of geography shot at breakneck speeds. Having lensed “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol," “Salt” and "The Bourne Legacy,” Elswit has grown into a formidable action photographer and the vehicular lunacy of “Nightcrawler"—likely a much more significant element of the film that you imagined—is immensely dynamic. If Gyllenhaal is the movie’s star player, than Elswit is its meticulously crafted, but still reserved secret weapon. There’s a quivering volatility to “Nightcrawler,” and Elswit is instrumental in unleashing it in the movie’s riotously manic third act.
Co-starring Bill Paxton as a ruthless veteran nightcrawler, and Riz Ahmed as Bloom’s nervous and hesitant employee, both these fine actors deliver strong performances, but this is Gyllenhaal’s jagged show. Until it’s not. Russo is an integral part of the narrative, and she gives as good as she gets. The role is easily her finest in several years and the rich material uncorks a wealth of inventiveness from the actress. There’s not a lot of imaginatively drawn roles for aging women, but Russo sinks her teeth into the role of a coldblooded vampiress protective of her own uncertain hold in the newsroom.
Marginalized and having gone hungry for what feels like a lifetime, a ravaged economic disparity pulses through the crisp air of “Nightcrawler.” Luminescent with coyote-like eyes, Gyllenhaal’s like a hollowed out animal that spends nights hunting for marginal scraps to keep himself alive. But what separates the feral Bloom from all the night-time loners and losers in this particular wilderness is unremitting drive and unhealthy obsessiveness, It’s as if going hungry for so long has created an intensely sharp mind that just won’t quiet. And the inability to switch off is toxic. [A-]