This is a movie about a man learning the power of the recorded image, made by a man learning the power of the recorded image. Screenwriter Dan Gilroy has never directed a film before and yet one gets the uncanny sense, watching his feature debut, of a natural auteur figuring it all out, instinctively deducing how a masterpiece is made.
And have no doubt, that’s exactly what Nightcrawler is. It’s a seat-glueingly suspenseful, chillingly visionary film comment as perfect for its time as Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy were for theirs. As if that weren’t enough, it’s built around the most hypnotic performance given by an actor this year.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, an LA loner whose profile is somewhere on a spectrum between Aspergers and sociopath. We first encounter him cutting through a chain link fence in the dead of night. We assume he’s trying to get into or out of someplace but that’s not what’s happening. He’s stealing the fence which, along with some copper wire and manhole covers, he unloads on a shady construction foreman.
The capper to the sequence offers the first hint that something is profoundly askew with Lou: After negotiating a price, he smiles, asks the guy for a job and is surprised when he answers “I’m not hiring a f*****g thief.” In Bloom’s universe the reptilian grin, the self improvement jargon he’s picked up on the internet, his manic work ethic are what matter. The fact that he’s committing a crime isn’t even on his moral radar. Well, it wouldn’t be if he had one.
As anyone with basic cable knows, though, there are places where a creature this soulless is not only welcome but rewarded. He finds his life’s calling on the drive home when he happens upon a fiery car wreck and a freelance team thrusting their videocameras as deep as they can into the carnage. Bill Paxton is dead on as the head of the crew, a grayer, sleazier version of the tornado chaser he played in Twister-a cheeky touch on Gilroy’s part.
Nightcrawler tracks Lou’s entry into, and unstoppable rise to the top of, this grisly milieu and delivers a virtual sermon on the depths to which TV news has sunk without so much as a single preachy line. Everything that needs to be said about the ethical bankruptcy of the medium is conveyed through the relationship he develops with a down-on-her-luck news director desperate to lift her station from last place and happy to pay top dollar for Lou’s bottomfeeding footage.
Rene Russo has never been better. In one of the picture’s bravura scenes her character, Nina, feeds her anchors prompts through their ear pieces as they broadcast video that Lou has shot of a blood drenched crime scene he got to ahead of the police. “Whoever did this is at large,” she cues them, barely able to contain herself, “Hit that again. Keep hitting it!” If it bleeds, it leads is old news. Fear, the film reminds us, is what drives ratings in post-9/11 America.
All of which may prove too creepy, a little too lurid for the Academy and, if that’s the case, it’s a shame. As far as I’m concerned, awards season just kicked off. From the camerawork by Robert Elswit-who makes the LA nightscape into one of the movie’s main characters-and Lou’s innovatory dialogue to Gilroy’s freakishly accomplished first time direction and Gyllenhaal’s DeNiroesque shapeshifting, this is an Oscar caliber jawdropper from first frame to last; a cool, crazy indictment of media voyeurism from which you’ll be powerless to look away.