Hollywood has always loved a good psychopath or sociopath. Charismatic dangerous people like Hannibal Lecter, Nurse Ratched, Frank Booth or Annie Wilkes have over the years become some of the most indelible characters. Entire films have been built around characters like these, relying heavily on the charisma of the actors to create the sort of of men and women who are both impossibly menacing and impossible to ignore. With the release of Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal is the latest actor to take on the mantle previously held by Hopkins and Hopper and Bates for his own spin in the mind of a lethally ambitious and treacherously charming individual.
Gyllenhaal is Louis Bloom, an unemployed and unscrupulous con man who is not afraid to steal his way into not having to work a normal job. We meet Lou as he tries to make a living selling scrap metal, fencing and stolen manholes to junkyards, but this is clearly not a long-term solution nor a career path. A chance encounter with an ongoing crime scene puts Lou on a collision course with Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), an ambulance chaser of a sort. Instead of offering legal advice to the recently harmed, Joe films the scenes of crimes as they develop and sells the footage to the local news. Lou seems an opportunity here, and after acquiring a low rent camera and police scanner, his new career is born. After some less than successful attempts at hitting it big, he hires an assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed) and starts to get some footage he can actually sell. He meets a local news director named Nina (Rene Russo), and they embark on a turbulent business relationship as Lou’s footage becomes more graphic and dynamic. It is soon clear that the man has no limits to what he will do to get paid, especially if it comes with a little fame on the side.
At its core, Nightcrawler is a character study, and Gyllenhaal makes Lou into quite the compelling character. A charming and resourceful sociopath, Lou makes it clear from the first scene that he has no limits or qualms in his quest to get what he wants. This is not the first time a character like this has been on the screen (there is quite a bit of Patrick Bateman in Lou), but Gyllenhaal manages to add a few wrinkles to his performance that differentiates him a bit from the pack. Most importantly, Lou is the sort of person who clearly has either taken management training courses or read many books on the subject, and his demeanor and speech is the sort of buzz word heavy business speak that can motivate and convince without ever actually meaning anything. It makes for an interesting watch, seeing how Lou attempts to stay on the good side of those around him until they balk, only to find him reaching into an altogether more sinister bag of tricks when challenged. Gyllenhaal astounds in the role, and along other recent performances in films like Enemy and Prisoners has cemented his place among the upper echelon of high profile male leads in the industry.
As Louis becomes bolder and more successful with his fledgling business (in turn making him even bolder still), the tension of the film ratchets further up. Gyllenhaal continues to be a force on screen, having carved out quite the niche for himself in these low profile thrillers like Prisoners and Enemy, and his portfolio continues to appreciate with an excellent performance here. His supporting cast is also strong, especially the the main ones (Russo, Ahmed and Paxton) being quite enjoyable. Generally, the technical aspects of the film are also well done, with first time director Gilroy handling the heavy driving and action scenes with applomb. The lighting is appropriately moody at night and oversaturated in the harsh light of day. Less impressive is the film’s score from James Newton Howard, which is quite inconsistent over the course of the film. At times, it hits the right mood, dark and foreboding, but there are other moments greeted with swelling strings and uplift. Presumably, this is supposed to be ironic, but in practice it feels tone deaf and takes the audience out of its world.
Nightcrawler’s biggest issue is its inability to take advantage of its premise and cast. The setup is good, and Gyllenhaal has created a compelling lead. But the plot is deliberate and the build is just a little bit too slow and disengaging, to the point that once it picks up and something other than Lou living his life starts to happen, it is not as interesting as it could have been had it happened earlier in the film. As such, the main conflict does not have the heft it needs. It is still an exciting development, but just not interesting enough to fully engage. Combined with the inconsistent score and a few other minor foibles, Nightcrawler is more of a case of what could have been. It is worth it for Gyllenhaal’s performance and some of the more tense sequences, but something does not quite click.