I apologize for the belated nature of this post. I was at a wedding far, far away. Anyway, onwards…
Often sociopathic characters are relegated to stories of extreme circumstances. Manipulative and ambivalent to the repercussions of their actions, these characters usually provide for powerful, frightening antagonists because they lack the common characteristics associated with humanity. The most obvious and celebrated of these (in my opinion) is Heath Ledger’s unforgettable Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Though chilling in these circumstances, there exists a divide between fiction and reality that even Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy could not bridge. This is not to say that Nolan’s grounded version of Batman’s exploits failed in delivering a timely and excellent set of stories, but rather that the genre of the comic book film/most modern urban fantasies exist in a world that we know is not our own. Odds are the Joker would have a rough go of it in the real world. However, sociopaths are not a thing of fiction and are very real. They exist in our society, perhaps less overt, but capable of being just as insidious. This is the reason that Nightcrawler succeeds; for it is a drama about our world and it stars a sociopath of terrifying potency.
The film centers around Louis Bloom, ironically enough (at least given my introduction) played by Heath Ledger’s Brokeback Mountain costar, Jake Gyllenhaal. Lou is a petty criminal looking for anything that can give him a leg up in life. Intelligent and adaptive, Lou possesses an obsessive work ethic fueled by self-help slogans and business catch-phrases he’s read on the internet, his favorite being, “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy the ticket.” After witnessing the aftermath of a car crash on the side of the freeway and seeing a film crew document the carnage, Lou thinks he just may have found his calling. Clever and unbound by morality or the law, Lou quickly makes a business of filming all things violent and bloody around Los Angeles, then selling the footage to early morning, breaking news channels that specialize in shock journalism. As Lou finds success, his ambitions rise as well as his willingness to do whatever it takes to get the footage he needs, even if it means manipulating crime scenes or goading dangerous criminals into action. Extreme follows extreme and before long the audience is left to wonder where Lou’s tireless pursuit of fortune and success will end.
Nightcrawler belongs to Jake Gyllenhaal. An actor of prodigious talent and nuance, I have always admired Gyllenhaal’s work, especially in the last few years with his memorable turns in in smaller films like End of Watch, Prisoners, and Enemy. Here, Gyllenhaal outdoes himself, creating a truly compelling character that will not soon be forgotten. His Louis Bloom is an unblinking, utterly cold creature; his gaunt visage split by a constant smile that is neither reassuring nor joyful. Yet he isn’t a vapid, emotionless character. Rather, Lou is observant, calculated, and thoughtful in perhaps the worst possible way. The effortless manner in which Lou manipulates those around him is brilliant. He doesn’t blackmail you, he simply explains why you’re going to do what he wants and lists the logical reasons why that is your best course of action. Gyllenhaal’s clipped speech and odd movements never come off as overdone, but rather as the personal ticks of a real human being (much like his character, Detective Loki in Prisoners). Performance aside, Gyllenhaal’s loss of over twenty pounds for the movie is impressive, enriching Lou’s character; his unassuming physicality is integral to what makes him such a frightening individual. Lou may not be the Joker, but he’s a sociopath for the real world, entrenched in a real enterprise that pervades modern society, making him an endlessly interesting and thought-provoking character.
Gyllenhaal is ably supported by two talented actors, Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed. Russo plays Nina, the head of a breaking news channel’s morning segment. Driven and unafraid to manipulate footage in order to make the biggest splash, Nina is Lou’s corporate counterpart, a woman just as guilty of exploitation as Lou, yet an accepted part of our society. Though she sees herself as Lou’s boss, she quickly comes to realize she’s out of her depth when dealing with him and as the film progresses, she must decide between morality and forwarding her career. Riz Ahmed plays Rick, a homeless man Lou hires to become his assistant at his burgeoning company. At first, Rick is enamored with the money and security his job provides, but he quickly realizes he has become party to a criminal without conscience. In this, Rick is very much the everyman of the movie, voicing the concerns and counterarguments of the audience to Lou’s actions and skewed rationalizations. Despite having a less showy role, it is a testament to Ahmed’s talent that Rick remains a convincing, believable character even when surrounded by the chaos that Lou generates.
On the other side of the camera, this marks the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, who also provided the script. Gilroy’s direction here is crisp and inventive. He uses Lou’s camera to great effect, letting us view the bloodshed that Lou witnesses as he does: through a viewfinder rather than our own eyes. The cinematography by Robert Elswit is just as memorable, showcasing the urban beauty of Los Angeles, yet in a way that is more realistic and less stylized than, say, the beautiful, neon-drenched, noire LA of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Elswit’s handling of the dichotomy of Los Angeles during the day and at night is also a stylistic choice that helps reinforce the difference between the normal world and the fever-dream world of night where Lou plies his trade.
Lastly, I will say that perhaps the film’s greatest achievement, besides Gyllenhaal’s Oscar worthy performance, is the accusative finger it levels at the audience. In viewing and being entertained by Lou’s many egregious and deplorable actions, we have become party to it, just as giving credence and time to shock journalism provides the ratings that validate an inherently invasive and morally questionable industry of “entertainment” that benefits only from people’s suffering. In this way, Nightcrawler is both an entertaining thriller as well as a thoughtful, conversation piece about the nature of media and how we interpret its “truth.” There is no doubt in my mind that it is destined to become part of a program featuring Natural Born Killers and Man Bites Dog, for it is just as potent a tale of exploitation and violence, yet in a completely different, terrifyingly more realistic way.
Note: If ever there was a reel that could convince someone to cast an actor as the new Joker, this is it. Gyllenhaal would be an inspired choice.