Nightcrawler sounds like the name of a horror movie, and in a way this superb and original thriller from screenwriter-turned-director Dan Gilroy is as eerie as any tale of vampires or zombies. The monster in the story is very much a human being — at least he looks, walks and talks like one — but it can’t be a coincidence that the nickname for his chosen profession is also a term that refers to earthworms, which live in dirt and feed on living and dead matter. In fact, actual nightcrawlers may have a bit more class than their human counterparts in the way they go about their business.
When we first meet Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) he is already formed; we know nothing of his past or where he comes from, and we never find out. All we know is that he speaks like a mobile self-empowerment seminar, spouting meaningless slogans and self-help proclamations, his eyes bulge out of his gaunt face and his rictus-like grin never meets those eyes no matter how wide he stretches his Joker-like mouth. He’s not above thievery, he’s looking for work, and finally thinks he may have latched onto his calling when he spies a freelance cameraman (Bill Paxton) filming a woman being pulled out of a burning car by cops on an L.A. freeway. The cameraman (Bill Paxton) is going to sell that footage to a local TV station, and you can almost see the light bulb go off over Louis’s pallid face.
He buys a cheap camcorder and police scanner, hires the homeless Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant for non-existent wages, and at first begins his career in amateur fashion, arriving late at crime scenes and fumbling shots. But a lucky break lands him a sale with a station whose news director, Nina (Rene Russo), is looking for the most graphic footage possible to boost ratings. And that’s just what Louis delivers, with each of his videos bloodier, more violent or more horrific than the next. He’s also not above driving recklessly through the streets of L.A. to get to the scene first, and even worse, trespassing into homes or even tampering with the crime scenes just to get the best (goriest) shots possible.
Louis, in other words, is a sociopath, but he is the sociopath we so richly deserve and the embodiment of so much that is wrong with society: the corporate greed-driven mentality of making money at all costs while throwing the tiniest scraps possible to those below us (like the perpetually underpaid Rick); the media frenzy for the most gruesome, nerve-wracking images possible no matter what the cost; and our own morbid fascination with both, no matter how destructive or hollow they are. Gilroy — an experienced writer whose brother Tony directed Michael Clayton and The Bourne Legacy — skillfully juggles these themes and, in a delicious irony, embeds them in an adrenalized, often violent thriller that acts as a comment on itself.
Nightcrawler is not an exercise in finger-wagging — it’s a fast-paced, suspenseful and crackling modern noir, the slick, gleaming, blood-soaked streets of Los Angeles shot with lurid beauty by cinematographer Robert Elswit. Since most of the film takes place late at night, it seems as if the only people out are parasites like Louis, cops and crime or accident victims — as if everyone else is inside, cowering behind their doors from the marauding, non-existent bands of criminals that Louis’ videos seem to suggest are amassing on every corner. He may know it’s not true, but he doesn’t care — and neither does Nina, who should but doesn’t bear at least some responsibility to offer a little truth in her newscasts.
Jake Gyllenhaal is frankly stunning in what may be his best, most transformative role yet. At first we’re almost on Louis’ side: he’s tenacious and even kind of funny in his oddness, but we soon see the void inside his soul and realize that this is a creature capable of almost anything. Gyllenhaal is riveting, his weight loss for the part making him look like a shambling scarecrow that’s part Jeff Goldblum and part Nosferatu. His unsettlingly cheerful demeanor gives way to something much darker at several points throughout the film, and the fact that he pursues his goals without a hint of compassion or second-guessing makes him malevolent. The actor brilliantly portrays a simulacrum of a man with no inner life or real human connection.
The underappreciated Russo (who is Gilroy’s wife) is given one of her best roles in a long time and makes the most out of it. The movie hints that the still-beautiful Nina has been aged out of a job in front of the camera and must now work behind it — and is going to make damn sure that she stays there. But even the formidable Nina is no match for the cunning Louis, especially in a queasy, super-uncomfortable “seduction” attempt by the latter in which he at first calmly and then more forcefully explains, with cold logic, why it makes perfect sense for their business relationship to turn into something more intimate. But you get the sense that he wouldn’t even enjoy the sex.
A haunting, bracing atmosphere, a literate, sharp-edged script, piercing performances and a throbbing, breakneck pace — Nightcrawler has it all and thoroughly entertains us while also shining a light into the corners of our collective psyche where our worst impulses scamper and scuttle. You’ll be electrified by the picture but will feel grimy all over after watching it. By burrowing into the rotten soil of modern culture and digging up Louis Bloom, Dan Gilroy and Jake Gyllenhaal have made one of the best films of the year.
Nightcrawler is out now in theaters.