Jake Gyllenhaal shines above superficial story in ‘Nightcrawler’ – a film review

October 31, 2014

nightcrawler-Nightcrawler_FantasticFest_rgbA great teaser trailer released a few months back hinted that Nightcrawler would present a character study of a manic man determined to get a job (watch it here). Jake Gyllenhaal certainly delivers an intriguing performance as Louis Bloom, the man at the center of Nightcrawler. It’s too bad the film fails to deliver any worthwhile insight into this character. This guy could have been something as interesting as Joaquin Phoenix’s character in The Master. Instead, we get an enigma so opaque you cannot tell whether this man has Asperger’s or is a genuinely psychotic misanthrope.

The movie, a first-time feature for screenwriter-turned-director Dan Gilroy, is a flashy affair on many levels beyond the lead performance — the cinematography, the music, the overall atmosphere. It’s a shame that the idea feels so unsubstantial and even condescending. We meet Louis as he scrounges metal at a rail yard. When a security guard catches him, he beats the guard and steals his watch, which Louis slips on, despite it being too large for his skinny wrist. He then takes the metal he has gathered, which includes manhole covers and chain-link fence, to a scrapyard where he negotiates a price with the taciturn owner. After settling on a price, Louis pitches that he hire him. His eagerness and breathless self-hype are grating. The scrapyard owner shuts him down with, “Why would I hire a thief?”

There’s always freelance work, and Louis finds the right gig after coming across the aftermath of a collision on a highway and watching freelance cameramen gather footage at the bloody wreck. The next day, Louis steals an expensive bicycle and trades it in at a pawn shop for an old handheld camera and a police scanner. He soon finds Rick (Riz Ahmed), a skinny, young homeless man to 824A1334.CR2assist him in his search for car crashes and crime scenes in the early morning hours that freelance newsmen thrive on. Louis’ lack of empathy and gusto for the job gets him close to victims and bloody scenes. A news director at a local TV station with faltering ratings (Rene Russo) is happy to pay his inflated prices for the footage. We follow the two nightcrawlers, as Louis gets more brazen in stepping over ethical boundaries and Rick grows more nervous about the acts.

Gyllenhaal deserves credit for losing himself so deeply in the role of Louis. He lost a ton of weight to give this man a look of having been eaten away from within. But he’s far from fragile. There’s a dynamo inside driven to survive. He’s a kind of vampire, using people with a cartoonish charm that’s sociopathic in its lack of any genuine warmth. He brings a nerve-rattling intensity to the character who seems to hide behind a thin but impenetrable mask of phony, fast-talking charisma. There’s a trapped desperation to Louis behind a surreal composure that seems on the edge of breaking down. He’s like a feral creature with attitude but little substance, which could also describe the movie as a whole.

Louis Bloom should also be recognized as a team effort. Makeup enhances his ashen, wraith-like appearance. Cinematographer Robert Elswit (who’s done amazing work with Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia and There Will Be Blood) mixes the light and shadow so expressively there are several moments when he looks like a cartoon. There’s one scene where he commits a flagrant, ethical no-no as a news photographer: tampers with the scene of a crash for “the shot.” He backs up with his camera to record the aftermath of the wreck, lifts the camera over his head. His eyes bug out.K72A5164.CR2 They appear as large white orbs out of a comic panel, shining forth in the wide, dark, distant landscape shot. His face expresses an ecstasy of revelation, seemingly entranced and impressed by his handiwork. As wide as they are, his eyes remain as impenetrable as ever. There’s more to read in his mouth. His jaw drops open to expose a blackness in his maw — once again, the impression of a wraith. He looks like Munch’s Scream, and makes no sound, just like the painting. It’s an impressive moment when the film comes together on the level of image and actor.

There are great action sequences and a dark atmosphere certainly saturates the film. James Newton Howard’s soundtrack is probably the sliest element, oscillating between calm, brooding echoing guitars and hyper-pumped drumming and humming synths as if it were something out of the ‘80s. It’s ironic that the film has the atmosphere of an ‘80s movie because it also feels as dated as one of those films.

In the grand social scheme, Nightcrawler tries to present a critique of superficial news reporting, which has little resonance in today’s era. Any comparison to Network would be pointless. That 1976 film mattered because it was prophetic of today’s current TV anchors/personalities who wear shrill opinions on their sleeves. Nightcrawler’s critique is old news. The idea of “it bleeds, it leads” took over local news reporting in theK72A6112.CR2 early ‘90s (and, seriously, must Gilroy have a character in the news business actually use the line in the movie?). Had this film appeared in the ‘80s, it may have been a bit more interesting, but as it stands, it’s like a joke that has fallen flat. That the film only ever builds toward a joke ending instead of a worthy moment of revelation, or at least a vague ambiguous notion of insight, speaks to the slightness of the story.

The problem is Gilroy, who also wrote the script, cannot seem to find his way out of this dark character study. It’s as if he’s written himself into a corner. Louis is presented as a rather impenetrable character, and he remains that way until the end. His only moments of weakness are when he has a solitary tantrum, all alone at home, letting out his frustration on a mirror. The most Gilroy can do to remind us of the compromised moral character of this guy is make sure the giant, loose-fitting watch he stole from the security guard is in frame.

But Nightcrawler still has a fundamental flaw in that there’s hardly anyone to play off morality to. The best we get is the assignment editor (Kevin Rahm) at the news stations who pronounces disapproval and wags a finger at the news director for humoring the footage Louis presents her with. Louis’ homeless assistant also shows a profound sense of right and wrong, but Louis always out reasons the poor, meek man. Their conversations go nowhere except one moment that just might settle the question whether Louis is a misanthrope or a man with Asperger’s. But it remains only a possible glimpse left unexplored.

Hans Morgenstern

Nightcrawler runs 117 minutes and is rated R (gore and sex talk). It opens pretty much everywhere today, Friday, Oct. 31 (check for tickets here). Fox Searchlight invited me to a preview screening earlier this month for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

6 Responses to “Jake Gyllenhaal shines above superficial story in ‘Nightcrawler’ – a film review”

  1. Kelly Wilson Says:

    So … I agree with you about the quality of the lead performance. However, I think that a film should be judged in the light of its aspirations. I suppose I am not quite sure what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish – you seem to think it was, perhaps, an extended critique of superficial news reporting – and, because I was not sure what he was trying to accomplish, I just tried to enjoy the story.

    I haven’t posted here in a while. 🙂

    • Hans Says:

      Thanks for posting … again! I would never dare to judge a film on its aspirations. What if they fall short of that? I was waiting for so long in this film for it to go somewhere. “Yeah, this guy is weird, and so…?” I kept thinking. It does seem to hint at something toward the end, but all we get is violence and then the joke ending. It left me a bit ill.

  2. Kelly Wilson Says:

    Interesting comment.

    I think that what I meant by judging a film on its aspirations is that a move like “The Others Guys”, for example, cannot be slighted for not being the masterpiece that “The Tree of Life” is. It cannot be slighted, I think, because it did not set out to do what “The Tree of Life” set out to do. It should be judged on the basis, I think, of what it set out to do. You ask: “What if they fall short of that?” Well … if their ambitions were modest, and they fell short, I suppose they should consider themselves to have fallen short…

    • Hans Says:

      I’m not sure what Gilroy’s ambitions were. Sometimes director’s issue statements, but I did not bother looking it up. I had a strong reaction soon after seeing the film because during the course of the film, I was waiting for it to go somewhere more insightful. But there was nothing there. There are questions in the movie that deal with ethics and morality. When you offer these gray areas in a story, you would hope there is some commentary coming on that. But there is nothing new or profound offered. At most there’s a sense of nihilism that feels rather dated, frankly.

  3. Susu.ro Says:

    Nightcrawler seems like a satire to modern television news about how they choose their leads or often seek for more ratings by entertaining their viewers rather than aim straightly to the facts. But there is a much interesting story beneath here and that is the main character, Louis Bloom. The guy that easily manipulates people with his sinister tricks of persuasion. Everything else may just be the natural world of crime and accidents, but in the eyes of this character, the experience is made far stranger and oddly fascinating. This provides a compellingly menacing and provoking piece of commentary which results to such engrossing film.

    What the plot mostly does is to fully absorb the viewers into the character of Bloom by studying his sociopathic behavior and the words coming out from his mouth. He is a charming young man with a dark intention hidden behind his grins. He pushes the limits of the law and his own safety, only to accomplish on what he must do in the job, even if it risks many people’s lives. The actions of this antihero is ought to feel terrifying on how it affects to both the business he’s working on and the society he is watching. The media’s side however is more of a picture of cynicism on how they broadcast the scariest stories of the city, giving the people fear so they could earn more viewers out of the concern. It just breaks down on how the evil of their success is disguised as their own ethics.

    The filmmaking perfectly captures their night’s work. You couldn’t clearly see the scenario they shoot unless you watch them on a video footage. The violence and peril they witness are shown without any hint of sympathy, since they only use them for the news show. The horror of these gritty scenes once again belongs to the nightcrawler. Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the biggest highlights here. His character obviously has the personality of a psychotic villain; he is mostly bluffing, and by the dashing enthusiasm he shows to the people around him, you probably may not know when his inner total madness will burst out from his frightening eyeballs, and that provides more tension than you expect. This is one of the Gyllenhaal performances that will be remembered for his career.

    Out of common sense, this story may lead its main character to a moral about how much he is taking this job too far, probably destroying his humanity. But no, this guy is relentless, almost inhumane, and his style in fact helps his career grow bigger, which turns out we are actually rooting for a villain. And that probably pictures to some oppressive ambitious beings out there behind some system. This is where things go in the end, bringing an outcome to a social satire. You can spot a lot of relevance even when some of the situations get a little out of hand. Nightcrawler is something else than a sentiment, what we must focus here is Lou Bloom: a new, possibly iconic, movie vigilante, except the only skin he is purposely saving is himself and his career.

    • Hans Says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Your points of the way Bloom uses language and the idea of forcing the audience to consider perspective from an anti-hero made me think of a podcast I heard this morning. Cue this up to the 45 minute mark:

      http://www.thecinephiliacs.net/2015/01/2014-favorites-with-keith-uhlich-part-1.html

      Film critic Keith Uhlich made one of the most salient points defending this film that I have heard. It’s not about dwelling on the clearly dated media references, as I did and many others do, but to consider the film as a sort of cathartic indictment on corporate speak. Bloom’s character becomes so much more interesting with that thought.


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