If you were able to effortlessly shrug off any sense of guilt or empathy, how far could you go? “Thrillingly and illegally far” is the answer according to “Nightcrawler,” the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. “Nightcrawler” depicts the early career arc of Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal), who lives alone in a small apartment in Los Angeles and makes a living by selling stolen construction hardware on the black market. This “career” changes when Lou witnesses some self-employed videographers filming the aftermath of a fiery car crash. Entranced, he quickly and efficiently learns the tricks of their trade, pawning a stolen bike to get an amateur video camera. Lou seems borderline sociopathic; he is ruthless, cutthroat, and enterprising, wiggling his way into the news industry and manipulating every character he meets.
The “crime thriller” aspect of the film comes from Lou’s quick development into the type of video freelancer who will do absolutely anything to obtain the most incredible, graphic footage for his employer Nina (Rene Russo). Nina manages one of the less popular news networks for L.A., and finds herself increasingly dependent on the manipulative Lou. Elements of voyeurism emerge as Lou deals clinically with the victims of terrible city crimes and accidents. His composure is downright uncomfortable—no human should be as comfortable as he is with the violent and graphic nature of his job. His absolute disregard for his own safety and the comfort of others creates a number of situations where the tension simply skyrockets. In one scene, Lou gets to the accident before the police arrive. In the interest of achieving the perfect framing, he pulls the body of the injured driver around to the front of the car as if the man is but an object for his art. The frenzied expression that contorts his face as he continues to film is one of almost masturbatory pleasure. It is clear that, in addition to the money, he adores the power he feels as the cinematographer of this violent scene.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is absolutely enthralling. He reportedly lost over 20 pounds for the role, growing his hair out long and greasy. There is something incredibly disturbing in the way his eyes communicate a sociopathic intensity. The script contributed to his performance in scenes where Gyllenhaal could use precise articulation and a sense of energetic drive to demonstrate Lou’s intensity. His varying personality, which he alters for each confrontation with another character, demonstrates his instability. At one point, when Lou makes a cloying, faux-inspirational pitch to Nina in an attempt to obtain a more secure job, the audience feels compelled to laugh and jeer—he seems utterly ridiculous. In another scene, however, when Lou makes calculated sexual advances on Nina, the audience feels that same sense of humor, but with a darker underbelly. The connection the viewer feels with Lou—spellbound yet fearful, excited yet disapproving—is electric, and complicated by moral quandaries.
Riz Ahmed’s performance as Rick, Lou’s hired driver, is also of note. He plays the foil to Lou, the empathetic yet desperate counterpart who constantly voices the audience’s rational reactions. Though Lou needs him to drive the car to each accident location, Rick is not entirely on board with Lou’s dedication to the work. But he needs the money. Whenever Lou proposes an incredibly dangerous plan, Rick reacts both authentically and humorously, resisting Lou’s detachment and revealing him to be not quite normal. “You’re crazy!” he repeats at various points in the script, a declaration that most of the audience probably thinks at one point or another. In response, Lou both acknowledges Rick’s point and remains unfazed by it. He seems to not know fear: “Get out of your mind, Rick. It’s not a good neighborhood to be in.”
The musical score, by James Newton Howard, does not shine as brightly as the film’s other components. At certain tense points in the beginning of the film, the music feels awkwardly optimistic, most likely intended to create sympathy for Lou. As the film progresses, however, the score improves—and the music for the climax parallels the tone of the narrative.
As Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, the film is a strong showing. The raw acting of Gyllenhaal combines with cinematography that captures Lou’s gritty world without becoming monotonous. The movie’s publicity tagline summarizes Lou’s story quite well: “The closer you look the darker it gets.”
—Contributing writer Bridget R. Irvine can be reached at email@example.com.
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