There’s a definitive feeling that sets in when you’re watching a movie and you suddenly realize, “This might be my favorite movie of the year.” I had that feeling with Nightcrawler, which follows Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a disturbed and lonely man, as he delves into the underworld of freelance crime journalism in Los Angeles.
Jake Gyllenhaal is on a roll. In 2012 he delivered a solid performance in the underrated End of Watch, and then last year he delivered one of my favorite performances in my favorite 2013 film Prisoners. He’s extended that hot streak here. We know nothing about his backstory, but we don’t need to. What Gyllenhaal is doing is telling us enough about his mindset in the present – he’s clearly built a history for Lou, but it’s not one we need to know to engage with the character. Right from the opening scene, 2 things are clear to the audience: We cannot trust Lou Bloom, but also that we will spend the next 2 hours transfixed by this character. The special thing about Gyllenhaal’s performance is that he’s doing so many little specific things that add up to an incredibly captivating whole. He adopts a slightly hunched over position, a gaunt frame (it’s reported that Gyllenhaal dropped 20 pounds for this role), and speaks very directly that sends an offputting feeling to the audience. But mostly it’s his eyes that do the talking. His wide eyes are simultaneously inviting and unsettling, and to watch the way he looks at everything – ranging from intensely calm to threatening – is to gain insight into who Lou Bloom is and what drives him. Writer/Director Dan Gilroy gives Gyllenhaal a few dialogue moments to reflect on himself that I’d rather not spoil, but want to note that they are brutally honest moments that Gyllenhaal expertly carries. In case Gyllenhaal hadn’t already set himself up to be remembered, Lou Bloom is without a doubt the character that will cement him in film history.
The supporting cast is well put together. Rene Russo gets the best character she’s had in years with Nina Romina, a news director of the vampire shift whose job is up for review. The chemistry between her and Gyllenhaal is well constructed – there’s a game of manipulation going on between them – and honest. Riz Ahmed turns in a memorable performance as Rick – a bundle of nerves who is Lou’s partner in his crime journalism efforts – and Bill Paxton slimes it up enjoyably as a rival of Bloom’s.
This is Dan Gilroy’s first film as a director, and you quickly get the sense that we’ve been missing out. He’s spent his career as a screenwriter, most notably for studio fare such as Real Steel and The Bourne Legacy, but it’s evident that dark and personal projects like this are where he excels. Together with cinematographer Robert Elswit, they paint Los Angeles in a fashion that expertly transitions between grimy realism and parody of the glitz and glamor associated with LA. Composer-for-hire James Newton Howard contributes well to the satire of the film, one scene where Bloom has “succeeded” plays out like a satirical fantasy in due parts to the direction and acting, but also because of the heavenly score Howard underlays it with.
All at once an examination of the viral hit generation as well as a satire on the American dream and the cable news corporations, this is a film that is very much a millennial film subject-wise, but universally intimate in its emotion and scope. It’s hard to not identify with Lou Bloom, he seems to be the type of character that we all have a part of that we’d like to not admit having. It seems like every year one film gets dubbed “The modern-day Taxi Driver”, but it actually feels appropriate here. The two films speak with each other in a very complimentary way, but to detail them would invite distraction from just how much of a wholly unique and completely original film Nightcrawler is.