“Nightcrawler” is one of those movies that get under your skin. It is so effective at drawing you into its seedy world of crime journalism the first thing I wanted to do after seeing this movie was take a shower.
But before we get into all the things this tremendous movie does well, we need to address the rock this film is built on. Jake Gyllenhaal absolutely burns it down with his performance as sociopathic cameraman Louis Bloom.
Looking underweight with a mop of greasy hair he pulls back into a ponytail, Louis is intelligent, highly motivated, and completely free of a moral compass. When we first meet him, he is stealing chain-link fence to sell for scrap and he beats up a security guard because he wants his watch.
But Louis is no ordinary thug because he is charming, well-mannered, and a staunch believer in the American Dream, as he is looking for any way he can to get his foot on that first rung of the ladder of success.
He is constantly rattling off nuggets of self-help wisdom as if he had been up all night drinking Red Bull and reading “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
He finds his calling when he stops at a traffic accident and witnesses a freelance camera crew led by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) spring into action, record the carnage and then sell the footage to a local television station.
Louis is a natural as he eagerly thrusts himself into any situation. He purchases a camera and finds a willing partner in crime in news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo, doing some of her best work in decades), who sees the salaciously profitable potential in Louis’ work.
With increasing success, Louis hires an assistant audience surrogate Rick (Riz Ahmed), who becomes Louis’ reluctant accomplice.
Without being plagued by any ethical concerns whatsoever, Louis sees himself as an entrepreneur, with brutal murders and fiery crashes viewed as nothing more than widgets rolling off an assembly line.
“Nightcrawler” is the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, who has spent most of his career writing screenplays for movies like “Real Steel” and “The Bourne Legacy.” Here, he delivers a movie that is soaked in dread and tension that subtly builds toward a frantic finale.
Gilroy pushes all the right buttons as the audience squirms and gasps every time Louis nudges the boundaries of good taste into something more sinister. There are also strands of a pitch, pitch-black comedy running through this movie with a handful of very funny scenes, typically featuring the back-and-forth between Gyllenhaal and Ahmed.
The movie also looks amazing, as Gilroy brought in Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit to showcase how eerily beautiful Los Angeles looks after dark.
Gilroy only falters a little with his cartoony, over-the-top portrayal of local TV news (sadly, “Anchorman” hits closer to home than this movie). If you squint you can see this film as a satire, but then that betrays what a fantastic, atmospheric thriller “Nightcrawler” is at heart.
What lingers with you the most about this movie, however, is Gyllenhaal’s performance. It is the best of his career and one that should snag him an Oscar nomination. You are likely to hear some comparisons to “Taxi Driver” bantered about in reference to “Nightcrawler,” but Louis Bloom is a wholly original nightmare who doesn’t transform over the course of the film, but instead settles comfortably into a niche we have carved out for him.
Every time we slow our car to get a better look at an accident or linger a little too long in front of the tabloids in the checkout line at the grocery store, the Louis Blooms of the world smile a little wider, reload their cameras, and slink back out into the night.
If that doesn’t give you a case of the chilling, Halloween heebie-jeebies, I don’t know what will.
“Nightcrawler” is rated R for violence, including graphic images, and for language.