Jake Gyllenhaal lost 25 lbs. to prepare for his role in Nightcrawler, this noirish drama written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Inspired by the lone coyotes he would see wandering the streets of Los Angeles when he was a kid, Gyllenhaal wanted to emulate the feral nature of a wild dog. They may look harmless as a domesticated pet, but get too close and they’re liable to tear you apart out of fear, hunger or survival. That pretty much sums up Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou Bloom, in Nightcrawler. He’s a kindred spirit to Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver: lonely and desperate for attention. And like a coyote, he may look like an innocent kid raised on TV and the Internet, but he’s ruthless and capable of savagery. Threaten this guy and he can turn vicious in the blink of an eye.
Nightcrawler takes place in Los Angeles and it opens with a scene that exemplifies Lou’s instability. Caught red handed stealing a chain link fence (for the scrap metal), the gaunt young man overpowers an armed security guard 40 lbs. heavier than him. The act of violence is not only out of escaping punishment, but also to steal the guard’s expensive watch. From there we learn that Lou lives alone, steals cable from his neighbor, and spends all of his free time on the web, absorbing information. He’s a quick study and able to rattle off data in long monologues that are part motivational speaker and part used car salesman. Lou is desperate for cash and willing to do just about anything for a buck.
One night he happens upon a serious car crash on one of L.A.’s busy freeways. Morbid curiosity causes him to pull his run down hatchback to the side of the road to watch firefighters pull a woman from her burning car. That’s when a freelance film crew — nightcrawlers — arrives on the scene to shoot video that they’ll sell to one of the city’s many newscasts. A nightcrawler’s bread and butter are gore and violence, anything that can garner big ratings for the morning report. Lou is hooked the minute he learns that there is money to be made driving around and filming crime scenes. He begins his new career.
He begins small, with a second-hand police scanner and a low-end camcorder, but he impresses Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the producer of the struggling channel 6 morning show. His eagerness to please and go to any length to get good tape helps Lou rise in the ranks of nightcrawlers. He hires Rick (Riz Ahmed), a man more desperate than Lou, and the two become a team, roaming the streets of L.A. As the money rolls in for Lou (he continues to pay Rick next to nothing), Lou upgrades his car, his scanning equipment and his camera. He’ll do whatever it takes to get footage for Nina, all in pursuit of the biggest payday, and more important, the glory that comes with getting your name mentioned on TV.
The final act of Nightcrawler involves a home invasion murder and Lou’s involvement with it. It includes a jaw dropping car chase and equally jaw dropping conclusion that will leave a pit in your stomach.
Gyllenhaal is at the top of his game in this role. He oscillates between the puppy-eyed kind looking young man he’s come to master in happier movies, and the steely eyed psychopath he inhabits in this role. He makes Lou downright chilling. It doesn’t help that Gilroy’s script is full of gallows humor. At times, you laugh at Lou’s tenacity, until he commits some heinous act that catches you off guard. Russo and Ahmed share most of their scenes with Gyllenhaal, representing the two sides of Lou’s character. In Rick, Lou sees everything he’s fleeing from: a bewildered, destitute young many willing to do anything to survive. Ahmed adds humanity to the movie, perhaps the only noble character in the film. Russo’s Nina is what Lou hopes to become: assured, slick and ruthless. I can’t recall ever seeing Russo so good in a film. It’s rare that she’s allowed to dig into a meaty role like this one and she does so with perfection.
Technically speaking, Robert Elswit’s cinematography makes nighttime L.A. look gorgeous. John Gilroy’s editing is precise and relentless. Finally, Dan Gilroy directs his Academy Award nominated script with an assured hand. This is his first directing effort after years of turning in scripts for other directors. Nightcrawler proves that he’s more than capable of delivering intense thrills and tough dramatic character moments. I look forward to his next film.
Nightcrawler is one of the best movies of 2014. The Blu-ray has very limited features. There is an EPK of the making of the movie. More interesting is the audio commentary by Gilroy and his brother John (the editor) that runs throughout the film.