REVIEW: “Nightcrawler” ★★★★

More character study than crime thriller, “Nightcrawler” is creepy and captivating thanks to a standout performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.

More character study than crime thriller, Nightcrawler may leave viewers conflicted as far as their feelings about the experience of watching the film.

On the one hand, it’s very easy to appreciate the riveting work of Jake Gyllenhaal in the film and just how committed director Dan Gilroy and the whole of the production seem to be in crafting a chillingly believable portrait of the ambition and opportunism-driven world of crime journalism.

On the other hand, however, they may have achieved their objective too well. There’s very little to like about any of the characters the film follows or the means through which they go about their rather nasty business.

Beyond appreciating the quality performances here, there’s very little pleasure in watching any of this unfold. Thus, it’s hard to recommend the film as something fun to experience on a night out at the movies.

What’s it about?

Gyllenhaal (Prisoners, End of Watch) plays Louis Bloom, an aimless and out-of-work loner in L.A. In his desperate search to find a means to make a living, Louis stumbles upon a grisly traffic accident scene and the stringers (freelance TV cameramen) who show up to shoot footage they will later attempt to sell to local TV news stations.

Immediately fascinated by their work, he learns everything he needs to know about what stringers do and how they do it online. He then obtains a police scanner and a camcorder, and sets out to start his new career.

Louis’s eye for graphic shots and his aggressiveness in obtaining those shots offsets his inexperience and relatively poor equipment early on. His work draws the attention of Nina (Rene Russo), a veteran producer hungry for higher ratings and the better job security that comes with them.

Nina’s approach to that end is as pragmatic as it gets. She knows her target audience and knows that what scares them or makes them nervous will also keep them transfixed to their TVs.

Her needs at first match what Louis has to offer. They also enable her to initially ignore his odd intensity and lack of emotion regarding the content he’s peddling.

A strange partnership is born, one that Louis quickly uses to his advantage as he builds upon his success.

As it turns out, Louis is perfectly suited to thrive in his new chosen career field. It isn’t just his keen eye for the “lead shot” or his instinct for what will sell. It’s also his sheer willingness to do what others won’t to get what he needs, regardless of professional ethics or morality.

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Gyllenhaal captivates

Again, what stands out first and foremost in Nightcrawler is the captivating performance of Gyllenhaal.  His creepy take on Louis is a far cry from just about everything the talented actor has taken on to date.

To start with, he looks as though he lost a significant amount of weight for the role. He appears starved, like a vulture that hasn’t eaten in too long.

Add to that look the intensity of his gaze, the deliberate falseness that informs Louis’s every word and gesture, and Gyllenhaal presents a compelling model of a sociopath.

It’s chilling work that should have the actor’s name buzzing among Oscar handicappers when awards season ramps up.

Gilroy’s gamble

Writer Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy), making directorial debut here, more or less gambles the film’s success on Gyllenhaal. No other character in the film gets nearly the same amount of development or attention to detail.

Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed (Closed Circuit), and Bill Paxton all make the most of what they’re given. Russo in particular stands out as a facilitator as well as a victim of the cutthroat media world in which her survival is increasingly dependent on her ability to deliver results thanks to her age and gender.  However, even her character is little more than a compilation of industry archetypes.

It’s Louis — his motions, actions and reactions to a Los Angeles shot through a pale yellow filter at night and oversaturated with light during the few moments we see him in daytime hours — that drives everything in the film, including its pace. Because he’s so methodical and calculated, that pace can feel plodding at times.

Worth seeing?

It’s that sense of dread that makes Nightcrawler so difficult to take your eyes off of. Strangely enough, just how the film pays off that dread might be the film’s most prominent weakness.

As “realistic” as the final outcome might seem to viewers once the credits roll, it just isn’t very satisfying.  Gilroy might have been better served by crafting a denouement that, while it didn’t match the tone of the rest of the film quite as well, might have left audiences feeling a little better about themselves and what they just experienced while walking out.

But perhaps that was Gilroy’s intent all along. Perhaps he wanted his viewers to feel touched by the dirty business and the carrion feeders who profit from it at the film’s core.

If that’s the case, then he’s certainly successful.

Nightcrawler

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, and Bill Paxton. Directed by Dan Gilroy.
Running Time: 117 minutes
Rated R for violence including graphic images, and for language.

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