It's no news to anyone who watches TV—especially local crime coverage—that the beat has devolved into a cesspool of gore, jittery witnesses and "hot content." What was once prophetic in movies like Network and Broadcast News is now commonplace. Writer-director Dan Gilroy's supercharged Nightcrawler, a viciously funny film, starts from that premise and wisely avoids making the same points. Instead, it twins the frenetic, sleazy hunt for shocking footage with the career ambitions of a closet psycho who, naturally, rises to the top. Closer in spirit to the media-amplified perversity of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Nightcrawler feels like a major portrait of a sick, insatiable appetite.
The hungry wolf at the center is Louis, impressively played by a wire-thin Jake Gyllenhaal, who right off the bat doesn't feel like your everyday L.A. loner. Bug-eyed, upbeat and frustrated by his nighttime excursions fencing stolen goods, he strolls up to a burning car on the highway, the rescue in progress. As he watches the swarming cameramen (freelancers who provide smut to stations for quick payouts), a light bulb goes off over Louis' head. Soon enough, he's out there with his own camcorder, getting closer than anyone—he nearly runs over a victim with his car—and sneaking through bullet-strewn homes without permission
Initially, Nightcrawler plays like a darkly comic how-I-made-it story. Louis marshals an impressive (if slightly cracked) discipline to his new passion. He fancies himself a budding businessman: After a ridiculous interview, he takes on a desperate assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), for an unpaid "internship" to watch over his wheels while he shoots, and sells a few clips to a crass news director (Rene Russo, tops in a tricky role). But the film takes a brilliant turn into the unexpected when Louis finds himself first at a wreck, even before the police. The corpse could be better positioned to catch the light; he moves it. From there, the bottom drops out and the film plunges into ethical free fall, as entertaining as it is nauseating.
Gyllenhaal, who summons career-best work, simply couldn't have played this character a few years ago. His boyish handsomeness undergoes a transformation into ferrety slickness, the actor hammering home Louis's mania in ferocious, near-OCD monologues—one of which will bring your audience to stupefied applause—that reveal a truly dangerous operator. And thank heavens for a film without the urge to supply a backstory. Gilroy, vastly supported by cinematographer and Los Angeles specialist Robert Elswit (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), directs with the verve of a seasoned pro, even though Nightcrawler is his debut. "Why aren't we at the rape in Vincent Park like everyone else?" whines Rick, his boss steering them to a different score beyond their wildest dreams. It's a movie in which those dreams have happy endings for the wrong people.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew