Nightcrawler tells the story of an uber-creepy sociopath that becomes a successful “stringer” for a television news station in Los Angeles. After we first meet Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) as a petty thief, he happens upon a near horrific single car accident on the highway. Two police officers are trying to free the driver from the burning car, and instead of trying to find a way to help he just stands there watching with a peaked interest. You start to get the feeling that if there was popcorn he would have some and whether or not the person lives or dies would have no effect on Lou’s disposition. That’s our first clue to just how disconnected Lou is with the human element. When cameramen show up seconds later Lou instantaneously gets TMZ fever and starts asking questions about how he can get in the stringer game. Joe (Bill Paxton), who later becomes Lou’s rival, explains that the pay isn’t great and it’s a pretty shitty gig, then he scampers off to his van to their next hit straight off the police scanner. But Lou knows it’s better than trying to offload random scrap metal he’s stolen, so seeing this as his golden opportunity, he steels a custom racing bicycle and pawns it for a camera and he never looks back.
As Lou cuts his teeth with his video camera he finds himself negotiating to sell his amateur footage to Nina (Rene Russo),the program director of the news station. Nina has been seen better days as she’s been passed around around several stations, and when she discovers Lou isn’t afraid to duck under the yellow crime tape to the get the bloody close-up, she’ll do anything to secure Lou’s shot. Lou’s not a nice person, although he interacts with most people with an eerie politeness. But he masks his contempt for his fellow man and quiet rage with a monotone certitude. A confidence that as long as he sticks to his business plan, and doesn’t let anyone stand in his way, then Lou seems to be content. If it bleeds, it leads, and as his business starts to grow he adds an “employee” Rick (Riz Ahmed) who he uses as his GPS guide while recklessly weaving in and out of traffic to be the first one on the crime scene. The real revelation in this character study is how Lou reacts when he’s threatened. Rival cameraman Joe, Nina, and even his own partner Rick find out the hard way on why it’s dangerous not to cross a person high on ambition and low on morals. The dialogue is nice and tight and although the action is spread out, the pacing works nicely to set up several climatic encounters throughout its 117 minutes.
The film is strikingly derivative from so many classics. Nightcrawler’s car chase climax has a subtle Bullitt heartbeat. Its L.A. street life at night had a Michael Mann feel that was very reminiscent of Collateral, although this film ends up looking better. Dark. Crisp. Clean. But above all else the spirit of this film is rooted in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Lou is a creepo cocktail that is one part Travis Bickle, two parts Rupert Pupkin, with a twist of Gyllenhaal. His performance is stellar. He nails the bug-eyed emptiness of Lou, and does so with a surgeon’s precision. Thin and light on blinking (thought it was curious that Gyllenhaal’s Loki had the nervous tick of blinking his eyes in Prisoners and Lou never blinks at all in this one.), he embodies the physical aspects of the character with impressive nuance. Whether Lou is in the midst of one of his cheesy sales pitches or is pleasantly grinning from ear to ear while rattling off one of his passive aggressive soliloquies, it seems so rehearsed. Not rehearsed in the sense by the actor Jake Gyllenhaal, but he makes us believe that Lou planned that conversation and played it over and over many times alone in his apartment leading up to that moment. Gyllenhaal has really been on a roll. This makes his fourth release in a row that I would highly recommend. And in his three previous films, End of Watch,Prisoners, and Enemy he is the main reason why I would recommend them to you. But Nightcrawler has so many elements that add up to a high quality flick. Dan Gilroy’s writing and directing, Robert Elswit’s dazzling cinematography painting L.A. in street-lit darkness, and Gyllenhaal’s tour de force turn as Lou make Nightcrawler a sleek thriller you won’t want to miss.