It appears to be my lot in life this fall to see every despicable character Hollywood can dream up. I did not think any character could compare in terms of distastefulness and malice to Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, but that was before I saw what Jake Gyllenhaal turned himself into in Dan Gilroy’s new film, Nightcrawler. I can best sum up my view on this film like this: Do I think it’s a good movie? Yes. Do I recommend it? Almost.
There’s little point in talking about the plot because it’s basically just Jake Gyllenhaal being a sociopath. He plays Louis Bloom, a broke sociopath who steals copper wiring, fencing, and bikes to make ends meet. One night, he meets Joe Loder (played by Bill Paxton) who works as what’s called a “stringer,” meaning someone who goes to the sights of violent, gruesome crimes and accidents and films them in order to sell the footage to morning news stations. Bloom, being a sociopath, sees this as a way to make money that he is potentially very good at. So, he steals a bike, sells it to get a camera and a police scanner, and starts learning how to be a stringer, or as he calls the profession, a nightcrawler. Along the way, he hires a down on his luck homeless man named Rick (played by Riz Ahmed) to help him for almost no pay on the promise of better pay down the line. He then starts selling his footage exclusively to a low-rated local TV news station run by Nina (played by Rene Russo) who is possibly just as ruthless as Bloom. Using his sociopathic lack of regard for other people and his ruthless drive to succeed, Bloom begins to make a name for himself in “video journalism.” Did I mention he’s a sociopath?
If that first paragraph didn’t clue you in, the best thing about this movie is also the thing that makes it the hardest for me to recommend. Gyllenhaal’s performance as Bloom is unsettling, disturbing, and brilliant. He says he lost weight for this role, and I believe it because his face looks gaunt, stretched, and saggy with his eyes bulging out of his head like a lizard, not helped by the fact that he constantly keeps his eyes open as wide as possible and almost never blinks. His physical performance is aided by the fact that he almost never raises his voice or becomes upset, and believe me, that makes the few times he does lose his cool memorable and frightening to watch. Beyond his sheer ruthlessness and lack of empathy for others, the character is unsettling because he is intelligent, pays attention, and quickly learns all of your weaknesses and problems and how to exploit them. He says himself that, “You will meet him on your worst day,” and you better believe it. If there is a story or footage to be mined from your misery, he will be there, even if he has to make your corpse cooperate to get it. As brilliant as his performance is, it also makes it hard for me to recommend this film. Other critics have pointed out that many people like anti-heroes or following the villains in fiction, like in Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. However, the villainous protagonists in those stories had some relatable, human traits that helped you identify with them somewhat and root for them to either succeed or at least not fail. There is nothing relatable about Bloom at all. He is a monster all the way through, and what he does to others to get his footage is monstrous and unconscionable. He even says, “What if the problem isn’t that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?” That quote sums up his character and the plot of the movie, and unfortunately I think I have too much of a soul to root for Bloom to succeed on any level. If you don’t mind following the monster for two hours, then you will love this movie. But if you’re like me, you might have some trouble enjoying it.
I wish this weren’t true, because otherwise I would say this movie is a great thriller with some truly memorable performances. Rene Russo is great as a bloodthirsty shark of a news producer who finds herself identifying with Bloom’s mindset, and by the end, to coin an appropriate phrase, “has drunk the Kool-aid,” so to speak. Another great performance comes from Riz Ahmed as Bloom’s assistant, Rick, who is a nice guy with a strong moral compass who is so desperate for money and employment that he forces himself to tolerate what Bloom’s doing so he can try to escape homelessness and poverty. Rick’s character is important in the movie because he represents the relatable viewpoint: the person who is essentially a nice person forced to do or allow awful things in order to not die a penniless bum. His presence provides the tension through a lot of the movie’s more tense sequences, particularly an extended car chase between some police cars and armed criminals that Bloom is chasing for the footage. Rick’s presence prevents the movie from being completely uninvolving and helps anchor the audience to the sociopath.
Oddly, what I mentioned before about having a soul seems relevant as the movie shows no interest in discussing the moral implications of Bloom’s actions. The movie’s question is not, “Is what Bloom’s doing moral?” but rather, “Why is he able to make so much money for selling such grotesque, gruesome video footage to news stations?” This criticism of the economics of gore in modern media and in our violently competitive capitalist society is spread everywhere throughout the movie. And by the end, which is technically a happy ending (particularly for Satan), the idea of success equaling righteousness is reinforced.
Ultimately, I can say that Nightcrawler is a great movie. It’s well written, directed for tense action, and filled with great performances. Unfortunately, anyone with a soul will have trouble sticking with this movie because Gyllenhaal’s character is truly unforgivable in every sense of the word. Check your moral compass at the ticket stand.
Nightcrawler is a great film that's difficult to recommend. Great performances throughout, particularly Gyllenhaal as the lead monster, combined with tense direction and a violent, unsettling story make for a great film. However the main character's complete lack of redeemable qualities will make all but the most unhinged of audiences cringe.