Nightcrawler is one of those movies that relies on one crucial element to place it above and beyond its contemporaries. Nightcrawler is fine. It’s competent. It’s one of those films that is objectively quite good, not a bad film in the slightest…but it’s not great. At least, that’s the box it would have been placed in, had it not been for Jake Gyllenhaal.
There are many classic film tropes in Nightcrawler, tropes that sit in every camp: in the narrative, in the characters, in the filmic conventions. Secondary characters fill a neat niche–the aging career-woman afraid of mediocrity, the rival professional who hides his shaken confidence behind a guise of bravado, the sidekick whose moral scruples speak for the audience. There is a montage where a protagonist gradually improves in his chosen field and a skeptical detective determined to Discover the Truth. The cinematography and look and feel of Nightcrawler almost immediately recollects Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. It is very much a First Film.
It’s clear from the first ten minutes that this is a film that would have been resoundingly average where it not for Gyllenhaal’s capitvating, magnetic, subtly-horrifying performance that I strongly believe is the best of his entire career. Lou Bloom is so tightly controlled, his quick-witted patter is so charmingly disarming and his rise to success motivated by sheer determination is so admirable that we forget he is a sociopath. Because Lou Bloom is a sociopath. It’s just difficult to accept, even as Bloom’s facial tics and speech patterns hint that something is not quite right here, as his methods for capturing crime on camera become morally questionable. I’m often disappointed in trailers, and I wish that Nightcrawler‘s didn’t include the clip of Bloom screaming in the mirror–not only is it one of the many hackneyed movie clichés that weaken the film, it is not the Lou Bloom we get to know in Nightcrawler. The “true” Lou Bloom–insofar as any representation of himself is “true”; we know virtually nothing about the man’s past, living situation (it is continuously remarked how odd it is that he lives in an intensely tiny space even after becoming wildly successful), or if he cares about anything aside from winning–is a pleasantly smiling, placid young man, his voice never rising above a conversational tone, casual. Perhaps he is eccentric, oversharing a little too much about the various things he’s learned, like a child returning from his first day of school, eager to tell their parents what he did in class today. Perhaps this perpetually pleasantness is a bit unnerving in its rigidity, and it becomes unreal, studied, another facet of knowledge to learn, like operating a camera or broadcast news or television, how human beings behave. Is Lou Bloom even one of them?
There are some other good things about Nightcrawler. There is a certain beauty in how the cinematography captures blood slicked across shiny tarmac on a hot night in L.A., the twinkling of red and blue police lights, the white lightning of flashbulbs and night vision cameras. While the “final reveal” of how the mainstream news reports a brutal slaying of a family inside their home–a desperate grab for ratings and shock tactics–is handled with a certain ham-handedness. The film’s climax, in which Lou and his partner Rick (Riz Ahmed) attempt to follow the perpetrators so that they can be first on the scene in their subsequent arrest, is appropriately tense and harrowing. Nightcrawler is an affecting thriller, but would never be able to stand on its own without its fantastic lead.