Led by a career-best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, Dan Gilroy's directorial debut Nightcrawler is a wickedly funny and at times downright disturbing social comment aimed entirely at our ever increasingly obsessed media culture.
Gyllenhaal plays Lou, a small time petty thief who turns freelance videographer overnight. With the help of his overly gullible and naive assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed), the two men prowl the streets of L.A in the pitch-black of night tracking down and filming one blood-soaked crime scene after another. In turn, Lou sells his graphic eye-witness footage to a local television station's morning news broadcast director Nina (Renee Russo).
Upon their first meeting, Nina explains to Lou that the type of newscasts best promoted are the kind involving "a woman screaming and running down the street with her throat cut." Give the audience a dose of horror and the rating's shall soar, especially when the victims are usually members of middle-class suburbia. Taking her motivational words to heart, Lou sets out to give Nina and the audience at-home exactly what they desire.
With the station's ratings in decline, Nina sees Lou's explicit footage as a perfect opportunity for a cheap rating's grab. Together they strike-up a highly questionable partnership as the standard code of moral ethics goes out the window in favor of fear-mongering sensationalism. This lulls the at home audience even further into the cesspool of L.A's gritty underbelly, and more importantly, further into the void of Lou's non-existent moral compass.
Nightcrawler is the type of film that hinges entirely on its lead actor's ability to lull the audience into a false sense of security. Thankfully, Jake Gyllenhaal is perfectly cast in this taut neo-noir thriller. Gyllenhaal embodies the suave bravado of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman. With his slicked back hair and fast talking confident in his words attitude, he is the very definition of a shameless huckster.
Lou's ability to sell and promote himself to those who will give him the time of day is second to none. Thanks to his brazen confidence, he immediately strikes a personal chord with Nina and before long they find themselves out on a dinner-date. Despite her one rule of "never hooking up with work colleagues", Nina desperately struggles to avoid being seduced by Lou's charming wide-eyed boyish qualities.
The entire scene plays as a power struggle as both attempt to keep the upper hand on the other. Brilliantly played by both Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal in the process, the scene hits all the right notes by mixing budding sexual tension with darkly tinted comedic touches thrown in here and there. But for as charming as he sells himself to be, it becomes all too abundantly clear that the wide-eyed boyish Lou is far from mentally stable.
Lou's ability to slither his way into the scene of a crime and get the proverbial 'money-shot' helps to make him all the more conniving and dangerous in the long haul. As Lou trawls through the streets of L.A in his fire-red Dodge Challenger at night, one certainly can't help but be reminded of the Nicholas Winding-Refn film Drive. Cinematographer Robert Elswit clearly has taken cues of inspiration as he captures the seedier neon-lit nightlife of L.A with a considerately appropriate leery sensibility.
That leery sensibility is also echoed through Lou's camerawork as he tightly frames close-up shots of the bloodied remains of the freshly deceased with little regard for their departed humanity. His voyeuristic eye shows all the makings of a stone-cold sociopath living out his fantasies vicariously through the lens of a camera. One could say that this is a metaphor for society as a whole. After all, perhaps there is a small part of Lou in all of us?
The film is essentially a savage indictment on both the audience at-home consuming this product of fear and the media in general for dishing it out. It also contains a bold cynical comment towards the means of manipulation and control as orchestrated by those in the media. A crucial scene plays shortly after Lou has sold the defining tape of his career.
He observes as Nina directs the news anchors in such a specific manner in terms of what to say and how to react. As the broadcast rolls, it becomes less about an unbiased truth and more about a certain desired narrative. Unfolding right before our eyes, we witness the encapsulated product of fear-mongering at its most base, ready for the masses to consume first thing in the morning.
Nightcrawler adds up to being both a delicious satire of our admittedly far-too-obsessed media culture and a thoroughly enjoyable character study focusing on the exploits of one utterly disconnected sociopath in his relentless pursuit to achieve the American dream.
(out of five)