Los Angeles-based night-drifter Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is looking for a job. After stumbling upon a pre-dawn car wreck, he spots a cameraman (Paxton) recording the carnage. Hours later, he sees the same images on the morning news. Finally, Bloom has found his calling...
In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle thirsts for justice. In The King Of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin craves celebrity. Both are deranged loners who go to obscene lengths to achieve their warped ideas of The American Dream. And in Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) we find, more than 30 years later, the spiritual younger brother to these iconic Scorsese/De Niro creations: another dark-roaming misfit with malformed ambitions. But Lou doesn’t feel driven to right perceived wrongs or achieve fame (directly, at least). He has a more modest destiny in mind, making him the product of these ever more nakedly materialistic times. All Lou Bloom wants is to be a successful businessman. A manager. In short: your boss.
He is delusional enough to refer to “my company” when all he has is a camcorder, a police scanner, a fast car and an “assistant” named Rick who is merely a desperate street hustler (portrayed by Four Lions’ Riz Ahmed with the nerve of a goose in a butcher’s). Given the set-up, you expect Lou’s journey into the murky world of freelance crime-scene videography to be a media-skewering satire. And, sure enough, we have tough-skinned TV station editor Rene Russo defining ‘news’ to ingenue Lou as “rich white folks getting killed by poor minorities”. If it bleeds, it leads. But what’s surprising is the way the movie also tackles modern corporate mentality.
This sententious oddball armours himself in hollow management speak, exuding all the unearned business acumen of a contestant on The Apprentice. It’s as if he wants to shove all the variety of human behaviour and its baffling concept of morality into the rigid checkboxes of career development plans and performance reviews. Now imagine someone like that turning up to crime scenes with a video camera. Every gruesome clip flogged and televised is a step towards success. You don’t know whether to laugh, cry or shudder.
Behind all this is screenwriter Dan Gilroy (Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy), making his directing debut. Full creative freedom has brought out the best in him. Not only is it a cracking script — a character-driven thriller relying on psychological manipulations over plot twists — but there’s visual impact too, courtesy of DP Robert Elswit’s urban nightscapes. The drama is vibrantly captured in the same streetlight-drenched LA stalked by Michael Mann in Collateral and Nicolas Winding Refn in Drive. Gilroy also choreographs one particularly breathtaking car-chase, which is innovative in that it is actually a car-chase chase.
Inside it all, though, is Gyllenhaal. We’ve seen him nail discomfort: from metaphysically dislocated high-schooler Donnie Darko, to Zodiac’s twitchy killer-hunter, to his tightly buttoned-up cop in last year’s Prisoners. But here he both transforms and transcends. As Lou Bloom he is pale and wired, looking less gaunt than stretched. He talks in a nasal, high-register patter, reeling off his careerist jargon in a way that is borderline comedic, but for the edge he gives it. Gilroy provides no backstory for Bloom; it is Gyllenhaal’s performance that fills in the cracks. We don’t need to know, just to feel — and in that sense the actor serves plenty to chew on.
Gloomy and disturbing, slick but queasy, Nightcrawler isn’t the kind of movie you’d expect to attract Oscar buzz. But Gyllenhaal’s performance may yet earn it that kind of attention, just as De Niro did for Taxi Driver. The darkest horse has entered the 2014 race.
Sharp, dark, satirical and bone-rattlingly thrilling, with a career-peak turn from Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s this year’s Drive.