If things ended differently for Travis Bickle and his unrequited love, Betsy, their son would’ve turned out like Lou Bloom. Lou would’ve grown up knowing that in life, no one gives you anything. If you want something, you have to work for it. If you work hard enough, and still nothing happens, then you take what is rightfully yours.
That’s the Lou Bloom we meet in Dan Gilroy’s devilishly entertaining new film, Nightcrawler. Lou, as inhabited by a ferocious and fearless Jake Gyllenhaal, is a smart, wildly articulate, slender beast of a man who spends his nights roaming the bloodstained streets of Los Angeles. After failing to find purpose (which we assume is something he’s failed to find for a long time), Lou discovers a freelance profession of filming crime scenes and selling the footage to the highest network bidder. Nightcrawlers, as these people are known, cruise L.A. all night, stalking police scanners in hopes of being the first one on the scene with cameras rolling.
That’s the only incentive Lou needs, as his every waking moment is spent trying to enhance his capitalistic endeavors. He learns how to effectively capture and edit footage, he masters police lingo – he becomes an expert nightcrawler, searching the streets with precision. Problem is, the market is too saturated, and Lou is rarely the first of his kind to arrive on the scene. Much of the excitement (and sheer horror) of the movie is watching how far Lou will go to get the story. Rarely are human immorality and callous manipulation explored as unapologetically as they are in this film.
Nightcrawler was written and directed by Dan Gilroy, an accomplished screenwriter of varied films like Freejack, Two for the Money, The Fall, and The Bourne Legacy. With Nightcrawler, Gilroy makes his directing debut, which is an astonishing feat in and of itself. The film looks, feels and behaves like it was created by a seasoned pro. Its visual aesthetic, for one, is utterly astounding. Lensed by the great Robert Elswit, all of Nightcrawler’s night scenes were shot digitally, thereby letting the gorgeous colors of the Los Angeles night pour into every frame. The day scenes, by contrast, were shot on 35mm film, giving the entirety of Nightcrawler a revolving juxtaposition of rich beauty.
But as crisp and exciting as Elswit’s cinematography is, Nightcrawler is a film rooted in performance. Lou Bloom marks Jake Gyllenhaal’s fourth masterful turn in the past year, following his confident yet fidgety Detective Loki in Prisoners and his expert dual roles in the mindfuck thriller, Enemy. It’s too soon to say if Lou Bloom is the best of these characters, but he’s certainly the most entertaining. Gyllenhaal shed nearly 25 pounds to play Lou, all in an effort, the actor has said, to make Lou feel like a coyote who carefully preys upon Los Angeles. That’s a fitting description, as Lou Bloom is a man starving for capital gain and notoriety. He’s also completely unlikeable and hasn’t a single redeemable quality. The fact that Gyllenhaal was able to make the character so insanely amusing really is an accomplishment.
Nina Romina is a crowning achievement of Rene Russo’s career. Watching this performance, in all her fiery zeal, one is immediately reminded of Faye Dunaway’s cutthroat turn in Network. Despite the age difference (or perhaps, because of it), the chemistry between Russo and Gyllenhaal is palpable for every second they share on screen. Genuinely, the woman is on fire in this film. Rounding out the trio of solid performances is Riz Ahmed, who plays Lou’s hard working but painfully naïve intern, Rick. There’s an innocence to Rick that makes him instantly likable, which, in turn, forces the audience to fear for him. I hadn’t seen Ahmed in a film before, but his restrained performance proves to be a perfect counter for Gyllenhaal’s radical work.
There is another character in Nightcrawler that deserves specific praise, and that is the city of Los Angeles itself. Nightcrawler captures a different side of L.A. than we’re used to seeing. There is no glitz and glamour in this film; no Hollywood bullshit. (There’s also, thankfully, a complete lack of “South Central” stereotype locations. You know, the ones where characters go one block in the wrong direction and the “scary people” come out of the alleys.) Nightcrawler is the working man’s L.A., the 24-hour strip mall L.A., the loading dock L.A. Gilroy’s instance on shooting the city in this manner is one of the many things that help Nightcrawler standout. And that’s precisely what this film is, a standout thriller that’s as fun as it is dangerous. There’s a scene in the film that begins outside of a Chinese restaurant, and ends with heads rolling in the streets, that could very well be the scene of the year. I could go on, but it’s best for you to discover this film for yourself. Nightcrawler is pulp fiction cinema at its finest. Marvel at its gorgeous depravity. A-
Note: I wanted to quickly mention that two of the actresses from my upcoming feature, Wait, are in Nightcrawler. Leah Fredkin plays a news anchor (she appears on TV as Lou is flipping channels) and Carolyn Gilroy plays an employee at Nina’s news station (she makes a comment about a baby in a crib). It’s so cool that they got to be involved in one of the best films of the year. I really could not be happier for them.
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