Nighttime in Los Angeles is a busy and sinister place in Nightcrawler, an unsettling thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a freelance TV news cameraman. Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, part of a ghoulish, nocturnal mutation of paparazzi—nightcrawlers—who follow cops and first responders to crime scenes and accidents. The movie makes many depressing observations about the media, particularly the cutthroat world of local TV news and that industry’s enduring motto: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
But the real reason to track this one down, on digital or disc, is to watch Gyllenhaal’s supremely menacing performance. As revealed in the behind-the-scenes bonus materials, the actor undertook a radical diet-and-exercise regimen to portray Bloom as a kind of starving urban coyote. He’s a scavenger and a predator, feeding on the misery of others. Gyllenhaal dropped 20 pounds for the role—and the guy’s skinny to begin with. He looks like death warmed over, which is just right for this story.
Director Dan Gilroy, who also wrote the Oscar-nominated script, does an interesting thing with the character arc. When we first meet Bloom, he’s appears to be a reluctant small-time thief, stealing scrap metal to make rent. He’s earnest, and even sympathetic—until we see him savagely mug a security guard on a whim.
Gradually, Gilroy and Gyllenhaal color in a portrait of a modern sociopath, raised on bad TV and the instant gratification of the Internet. Bloom stumbles into the nightcrawler racket, but he instantly recognizes it as his calling in life. He’s fascinated with the power of the images he captures on video—bloodied crash survivors and crime victims.
Bloom even spooks his own nightcrawler colleagues. These guys don’t have many ethical boundaries, but they have a few. Bloom doesn’t scoff at the rules; he simply doesn’t acknowledge them. He doesn’t even see them. When he starts selling his footage to a cynical TV news director, played by Rene Russo, Bloom smells further opportunity for his brand of can-do initiative.
The dialogue in Nightcrawler is something to be savored. Bloom talks with the aggressive hucksterism of scary self-help knuckleheads from late-night TV and the darker corners of the Internet. Dealing with the local news stations, his competitors and his accomplices, Bloom circles back to the same empty buzzwords to obscure his simple, feral avarice. At one point, another character observes that Bloom just doesn’t understand other people. His reply: “It’s not that I don’t understand other people. It’s that I don’t like them.”
Tonally, Nightcrawler is restless and jittery in a way that recalls a famous earlier film about death, decay and nighttime in the city—Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. There’s a bit of Travis Bickle in Bloom. But Bloom’s pathology, as Hannibal Lecter might say, is more savage and more terrifying. Bickle was driven by pain, and a revulsion toward the city at night. Bloom doesn’t feel any pain. And he likes the city at night.
Nightcrawler is available now on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, DVD and Blu-ray.
Other notable releases this week, now available on digital and disc (Academy Awards Edition!):
- Academy Award-winner for Best Picture Birdman teams the invaluable Michael Keaton with Best Director-winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.
- Best Actor-winner Eddie Redmayne stars as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.
- Academy Award-winner for Best Animated Feature Big Hero 6 is a fun and funny option for family movie night.
- J.K. Simmons won Best Supporting Actor for his work in the crazy-good indie drama Whiplash.
- Not nominated but should have been: Filmmaker Steve James relays a surprisingly great life story in the excellent Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself.
- Also: Horrible Bosses 2, St. Vincent, The Homesman and—binge-watching alert—Game of Thrones: Season 4.