There’s something fantastically eerie about Jake Gyllenhaal’s latest performance in “Nightcrawler,” written and directed by Dan Gilroy. One look at the actor’s deranged smile as protagonist Lou Bloom, and you’ll forget you ever saw him launching rockets in “October Sky” or playing with comparatively tame little bunnies in “Donnie Darko.” Entertaining and repulsive until the credits roll, this thriller is a career-defining game-changer.
The film begins as opportunistic Lou finds work as a Los Angeles-based nightcrawler, a professional title referring to the cameramen who stalk police scanners in an effort to capture the city’s latest catastrophe on film. It’s the perfect job for the nocturnal Internet junkie. Rearranging corpses into better angles for his camera lens appears instinctively second nature. For the first time in his life, ethically bankrupt Lou is financially thriving, making a good living selling his footage to television studios seeking to profit from headlines wallowed in scandal and blood.
Part satire and part thriller, “Nightcrawler” uses Lou’s increasing level of insanity to relay sharp commentary on the fear-mongering nature of nightly news. A gory film with a valuable lesson, “Nightcrawler” is Bret Easton Ellis’ “American Psycho” transformed for a media-hungry culture.
Sharing the insatiable appetite for gore is news producer Nina (Rene Russo, “Ransom”), who quickly teaches Lou to scope out “good” news stories, defined by the inclusion of affluent neighborhoods, white victims and urban suspects. Bonus points if the crime involves a black man and a young, white woman. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is the bottom line at Channel 6, and it’s one Lou happily adopts as his own. Come sweeps season, he evolves into a scheming predator creating his own carnage for the cameras.
Reality need not be suspended in order to bear witness to some of Channel 6’s programming practices in action. The content of Gilroy’s work is highly relevant, reflecting a current industry in which misfortune and tragedy are sensationalized and dissected for later regurgitation at the office water cooler. The most terrifying aspect of “Nightcrawler” is the implication that there are real-life counterparts to Nina and Lou, and it’s an implication Gilroy boldy delivers.
Through Nina’s dialogue, the film engages in a not-so-subtle indictment of modern journalistic practices — Russo’s character blithely describes her perfect workday as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat slit” and twists facts to better suit her self-promoting agenda. Meanwhile, her co-worker Frank (Kevin Rahm, “Mad Men”) acts as the film’s conscience, struggling unsuccessfully to fit his decent ethics into the 24-hour news cycle. The dichotomy between these characters makes audiences yearn for a bygone era of news reporting, while the culmination of these warring ideals leads to some of the more poignant scenes within the film.
The acting in “Nightcrawler” is superb. Gyllenhaal electrifies in his most transformative role to date. Physically molding himself to match the nightcrawler’s deranged psyche — shedding 20 pounds and apparently shampoo in the process — Gyllenhaal is greasy, wiry and completely unrecognizable. The actor’s gaunt appearance is almost as startling as his character’s behavior. His speech is verbose to the point of manic incomprehension. His frantic line-delivery makes for great gallows humor, lending a sharp satirical edge to an otherwise by-the-book thriller.
It comes as no surprise that a certain Oscar buzz has surrounded “Nightcrawler” and its crew since the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, but Gilroy’s intentions seem to transcend trophies and critical acclaim. Considering the weighty social commentary embedded within the film, its ability to resonate with audiences might just be its own reward.
On all accounts, “Nightcrawler” is a pulse-pounding thriller fit for a new age. Brilliant acting and direction abound in what is likely to be hailed as one of the darkest — and most thematically relevant — thrillers of 2014. Move over, Patrick Bateman. America has found itself a new psycho.
“Nightcrawler” is playing at UA Berkeley 7.