By Nick Anstett
Elm Staff Writer
Beneath the faded lights and urban sprawl of modern day Los Angeles, Calif. a man cuts away a wire fence. He slicks his hair back as a privately owned security officer asks for some form of identification. He speaks softly, but there’s something quietly unhinged behind his buglike eyes. Without warning he makes a grab for the officer’s watch and the two disappear into the shadows.
Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an unemployed thief. When he’s not at home watering his plants or meticulously studying business strategy on the Internet, he’s stealing scrap metal, watches, cameras, bikes, etc. Bloom lives by a personal motto: “In order to win the lottery, you have to get the money to buy the ticket.” His career goals are nebulous, but he wants and truly believes in true American upward mobility. When he stumbles upon a late night freelance video crew filming a car crash, Bloom finds his calling. It’s not long before he’s on the streets of Los Angeles and making a name for himself in the local news circuit filming the bloodiest and most current crime.
Gyllenhaal is quickly proving himself an actor of incredible diversity, but he has yet to play a character as unnerving and upsetting as Bloom. From his greased back hair, calculated dress, clean shaven face, and piercing wide eyes, Gyllenhaal crafts Bloom into a captivating but instantly unsettling figure. His ever present grin coupled with his dogmatic devotion to anecdotal business and career advice from pages of self-help books paint a picture of a possibly good intentioned but broken victim of the modern day employment crisis. Gyllenhaal makes “Nightcrawler.” His performance is uncomfortably magnetic in that from very early into the film it’s clear that we are dealing with an individual that does not operate like a conventional human being and is likely very dangerous, but one cannot look away. There’s a comic tinge to his on-the-nose depravity and perhaps naiveté. It’s the sort of anti-hero that could become iconic.
It’s so strange then that Bloom is also the source of much of the film’s problems. Gyllenhaal has taken the character in a very clear and even brilliant direction, but this does not always seem to match with writer and director Dan Gilroy’s vision. While he is still undeniably fascinating to watch, any sort of empathy for “Nightcrawler’s” protagonist is likely impossible. It doesn’t help matters that James Newton Howard’s musical score plays up certain scenes of supposed emotion. It’s an odd moment of disconnect that in some ways undermines much of what makes “Nightcrawler” so great.
This is made even more confusing considering that Gilroy’s direction for the rest of “Nightrcrawler” is incredibly strong. The visual look of Gilroy’s Los Angeles is captivating and steeped in faded neon lights and shadows. It’s a look not unlike the iconic cinematography in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” which is also set in the City of Angels. Gilroy also builds tension with precision and calculation not unlike the film’s protagonist. When the film collapses into action and chaos, it’s shot with kinetic attention and energy.
However, biting at the heart of “Nightcrawler” beneath the thrills and color is a smart and savvy satire of American business culture and news media. Gilroy attacks the media’s obsession with violence and misfortune with equal ferocity. In a more subtle manner, “Nightcrawler” also finds itself concerned with issues of class in today’s financial culture. It exposes an upsettingly realistic environment where a figure like Bloom could exist, and that truly is a disturbing thought.