Past the Popcorn: Jake Gyllenhaal Does His Best Work in Nightcrawler

by Jeff Walls

Jake Gyllenhaal is quickly becoming one of our better actors.  After bursting onto the scene in 2001’s indie cult hit Donnie Darko, Gyllenhaal earned his first and (so far) only Oscar nomination for his performance opposite the late Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.  Since then, the actor has delivered many more quality performances in movies like Jarhead, Zodiac, and End of Watch.  Sure, he has also had a few duds (Prince of Persia, anyone?), but for the most part the actor has shined.  Nightcrawler is just the latest in a long line of good work… and it just might be in best.

In Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal plays an ambitious man desperate for work who happens upon a fiery car crash one night.  There, he observes a couple of camera men swooping in to film the heroics of the responding police officers as they pull a woman from the burning vehicle.  He learns that these men are freelance news videographers who plan to sell the footage to whichever news outlet is willing to pay the most.  He asks for a job, but once rejected decides to set out on his own.  He pawns a bicycle (not his) and buys himself a camcorder and a police scanner.

nightcrawler-insetHe quickly learns that nightcrawling, as those in the industry call it, is not as easy as it first looked.  Constantly beaten to the crime scene by the competition or sent away by the cops, Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom refuses to give in.  His persistence pays off when he gets close-up footage of a carjacking victim and is able to sell it to one of the local news station.  He then forms a relationship with the news director, a woman who gives more credence to ratings than she does morals.  Morals are also not high on Bloom’s priority list and as his business grows he becomes increasingly more willing to go more and more outside the law to get the story, which quickly brings him to the attention of the local police.

Nightcrawler is a dark movie filled with characters you definitely would not want to know in real life, but it tells its dark story in such an entertaining way that we cannot help but enjoy it, despite our misgivings towards the characters.  The movie is visually appealing and features some thrilling set-pieces, including a fast-paced car chase near the movie’s end.  There is also plenty of humor throughout the movie which might seem like it is undercutting the movie’s dark themes, but first-time director Dan Gilroy does a good job balancing the dark with the light.

The characterization of the news media in the movie is certainly more dark than light.  Gilroy’s script uses Renee Russo’s news director character to represent the media’s desperate need to fill the news with stories of blood and violence; if the victims of these violent acts are rich white people, all the better.  Nowhere is this better demonstrated than a scene in which Russo’s character guides her news anchors through a video of a triple homicide.  She is constantly reminding her anchors to mention that the perpetrators are still on the loose, so to scare her audience into staying tuned for more.  The most blood-curdling moment of the scene comes when Russo hassles her anchors to build up the tension as the camera approaches a crib that may or may not have a dead baby in it.

The highlight of the movie is certainly the performance of Gyllenhaal.  The actor lost twenty pounds for this part and most of it appears to have been in his face.  Looking very gaunt, the actor is great whether he is issuing vicious threats, violently shouting in a mirror, or sharing the wealth of good business knowledge he has gathered together from the Internet.  The resulting character often seems like what would have resulted had Andy Kaufman played the role of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, a movie Nightcrawler is already drawing comparisons to.  Lou Bloom may have less a character arc than just a straight line drawn from morally questionable to morally despicable, but he is so fascinating that we hardly care.

Nightcrawler is definitely not for those who prefer upbeat movies with characters who inspire us (hopefully you won’t be inspired by Lou), but for those who like entertaining dramas with fascinatingly despicable characters that aim to peel off a layer of society so we can see it for what it really is, this movie should be right up your alley.

Nightcrawler opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16 and the AMC Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again?

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