Review: “Nightcrawler” is dark, disturbing, and captivating
Director Dan Gilroy
Screenwriter: Dan Gilroy
Principal Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, and Riz Ahmed
There is a rather large argument happening in certain sections of the Internet at the moment. It’s called “Gamer Gate” and it’s something I’m not really going to get into because I like not having people sending me death threats over social media. However, one of the main things going on in this argument is the concept of ethics in gaming journalism. I bring this up because it came up while I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two other film critics while waiting for my screening of Nightcrawler to start. The idea of ethics within journalism, whether it be print, television, or the Internet, is always going to be a topic of conversation, i.e.the concept of going beyond the accepted standards of behavior and how we should approach it as our culture’s moral compass continues to evolve.
Nightcrawler is an intense and fascinating look into the concept of ethics within journalism, helmed by an outstandingly eerie performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.
Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a desperate young man looking for any work he can get. While driving home one day he passes a car accident and watches Joe Lober (Bill Paxton) film the wreck to sell the footage to the news station that will pay him the most. Lou decides he has found his calling and immediately begins to look for various violent crimes that happen all over Los Angeles. He hires Rick, (Riz Ahmed), a homeless kid, to help guide him to the various crime scenes and sells the footage to Nina Romina (Rene Russo) the night station manager of the station with the lowest ratings. As Lou gets closer and closer to the horrific scenes he films, he slowly begins to become more than just an observer.
The thing that truly holds this entire storyline together is Jake Gyllenhaal. He lost the perfect amount of weight for this role, his eyes look bigger than ever. The big eyes combined with the greasy hair, and the ‘not quite nice enough’ outfits, creates the perfect look for the character of Lou. In fact, while viewing the picture I just kept thinking about how much he reminded me of a demented gecko. It’s made quite obvious from the beginning that Lou isn’t quite right. He is obviously extremely well spoken, but there is an undercurrent of violence that is laced with everything that he does. He sets your teeth on edge because he almost manages to land somewhere in the “uncanny valley”*. He’s like an alien visitor that adopted the manners of a sociopath. You know that he’s dangerous but Gyllenhaal’s Lou is so composed that when we see how dangerous he is, it’s both jarring and not. We know Lou isn’t right but we’ve only had slight cues and the fact that he doesn’t seem have to a moral compass.
Gyllenhaal really does own this movie, but that’s not to say that there isn’t some great supporting work being done in the background. Riz Ahmed is Rick, the young man that Lou hires to help him get to the crime scenes every night. Rick isn’t quite the sharpest tool in the shed and that lets Lou manipulate him. I spent a majority of the movie resisting the urge to yell at the screen and tell Rick to get out of there, which says a lot about Ahmed and how he plays Rick. Renee Russo plays Nina, the newsroom supervisor who deals with Lou and makes the deals for the footage. Her station has the lowest ratings and Nina will likely lose her job if they don’t improve. Bill Paxton is Joe Lober, another freelance footage gatherer, who has enough competition that he doesn’t need Lou, letting his obsessive nature getting in the way. Russo, Paxton, and Ahmed provide excellent counters to the way people’s sense of morality and ethics can change depending on the situation. They are all desperate people which is why that sense of morality changes, depending on how desperate they are. You are left wondering when they are going to perceive the line they won’t cross, while Lou continues to step up and walk over line after line without a moment of hesitation.
The fact that any of these characters remain likable says a lot about writer/director Dan Gilroy. I don’t want to say that you’re really rooting for any of these people because they do some really terrible things over the course of two hours, but you’re never actively wishing that someone would die. Gilroy also does a great job creating excellent dialogue for everyone to hang a performance on. The writing really excels for Lou’s dialogue because it showcases how smart and off-putting he is without being heavy handed about it. The story is fairly simple but it does an excellent job of showcasing all of the different points of view when it comes to what the ethics should be as far as violent journalism goes. It makes the entire film feel very raw and exposed. It doesn’t pull any punches and isn’t subtle about what it thinks and about what these people are doing. The ending is simultaneously what you expect and yet takes you by surprise. It made sense for the tone of the movie and I enjoyed it immensely.
Gilroy also does a very good job at directing as well. The movie is mostly shot at night, hence the title, but it makes sure that you can see what is going on. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, but from what I personally know this felt very true to the area. I was also very pleased to see that Gilroy doesn’t use the “shaky cam” gimmick as much as I thought, considering the material. There is enough of it but almost anything that is presented as footage is also presented with a steady hand. Gilroy uses various light sources to catch Gyllenhaal’s eyes every time to give him an almost wide eyed naivete, while also enhancing that “lizard” look. The movie isn’t washed out with lens flare, but soaked in the yellow tint of streetlamps and dashboard lights. It’s a great effect and makes the movie feel very authentic.
This is a very dark movie and there are a few moments that don’t quite mesh with the rest of the film. They are mostly moments where they try to humanize Lou a little, but I liked the fact that he came off as so inhuman. I did enjoy that there isn’t a defining moment when you’re supposed to realize that Lou has no sense of ethics because, like the various supporting characters, ethics and a sense of morality are mostly subjective. One person might go into Nightcrawler and find what Lou does disgusting right away, and completely within reason. Another person might not ever come to that moment, and that is incredibly hard to pull off.
Nightcrawler is a dark, original, and mesmerizing film, in the same way you cannot help but slow down to look at the wreck on the side of the highway. The lead performance by Gyllenhaal is going to be another role that everyone is going to be talking for the rest of the year. If there is any justice in the world of cinema, Gyllenhaal will walk away with some award nominations. This one is absolutely recommended.
*The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of human aesthetics which holds that when human features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some human observers. The “valley” refers to the dip in a graph of the comfort level of humans as subjects move toward a healthy, natural human likeness described in a function of a subject’s aesthetic acceptability. Examples can be found in the fields of robotics and 3D computer animation, among others. — via wikipedia