dir: Dan Gilroy
For me at least, after watching this film, it’s been confirmed, as if these things really matter anyway, that the Academy has yet again dropped the ball when it comes to nominations for Best Actor. Nothing I’ve seen thus far from last year was as great as what Jake Gyllenhaal achieves in this film. For my money, Nightcrawler has the performance of the year.
It’s also an incredibly strong film in its own right, but, man, that performance is breathtaking.
Gyllenhaal, who’s generally never been a slouch in the acting department, really pulls out all the stops and gives this creepy, monstrous character his all. That should not imply that there is overacting all over the place. Nothing of the sort. Au contraire, to be accurate.
This is a performance up there with Lord Anthony Hopkins for Hannibal or Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, or Anyone as Richard Nixon, only this character is probably even more of a monster than those three jerks, and yet he is far more polite and courteous. His manner, however, barely hides the cold alien nature that lurks below his feverish eyes and gaunt cheeks.
The easy thing is to say this is a media satire, or a serious castigation of where the media is these days. It’s easy, and it’s perhaps partially true, but it negates the fact that this is far more of a character study than it is a polemic against the predatory instincts and complete disregard for humanity the average American news outlet possesses.
When the film starts we’re seeing various night time shots of Los Angeles, just to give us the idea that this is very much a story set in its location. The sprawling nature of the place plays a major part in what goes on, seeing as the main character and some of his antagonists spend all their time furiously speeding around the place. In a way it plays as much of a role here as it did in Michael Mann’s best film thus far, being Collateral.
Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a person at the bottom-feeder level of the economic food chain. When we first see him, it’s night time, and a security guard has just busted him stealing copper wire, fencing, maybe even a shopping trolley? Our main character talks calmly and rationally with the chap, who seems intent on collaring him. Lou keeps putting on a ‘gee, I’m lost, where are we?’ charade with the guy, until he establishes a) that the guy is just a lowly one-man patrol, and b) that he has a nice, expensive looking watch on.
Lou proceeds to beat the shit out of the poor guy, maybe killing him, who knows, before we then see Lou wearing the watch, and trying to sell what he stole for pennies to a scrap dealer.
You might think Lou taking on the security guard is meant to be our trenchant introduction into what this character is like, but it’s Lou’s conversation, or monologue, more correctly, with the scrap dealer that’s more illuminating.
Lou, like he does throughout most of the film, likes to give speeches. We don’t know where Lou has sprung from, whether he existed prior to the start of the story, or whether he just fell from the sky and is trying to learn how to replicate human-seeming behaviour. What he starts off with is the facility for trying to give speeches to what he thinks a particular person needs to hear in order to give Lou what he wants.
He explains to the scrap dealer that he, Lou, is just a guy who wants to work the hard work many people of his generation are accused of being allergic to, and that given an opportunity he will excel and learn much at his mentor’s feet, definitely with the intention of helping the scrap dealer’s business grow exponentially.
The scrap dealer listens to all this Tony Robbins-level puffery while doing some paperwork, and eventually, after all those words are said, just says “No”, emphatically. When asked why, he just points out that he’s not stupid enough to “hire a fucking thief.”
Lou smiles a cryptic smile, and goes on his way. Lou thinks he has the gift of the gab, that he can say what people want to hear, but most people seem to view him as some kind of alien. It doesn’t help (well, it helps the portrayal) that he is gaunt, and creepy looking. Gyllenhaal, who probably had no weight to spare, lost weight for the role (the way all actors have to do in order to get nominations, they think), and it really enhances how freakish looking he can look. He also slicks his hair back in this way that makes it look like a mother has plastered it down with spit, and with awkward spikes out at inappropriate places.
He is a learning machine, though, always looking at the LA environment, always wondering what next to absorb in order to seem more human and in order to dominate the life forms around him. And to make some dollars as well, most importantly.
When he comes across an accident, what he really comes across is an opportunity; another opportunity to learn and profit from. He sees a chap filming footage of the crash, and wonders why, and then hears about how it’s done, and why.
So Lou Bloom now has a new career. With a camera and a police scanner, he starts speeding to accidents and crimes with the intention of selling the footage to news channels.
Of course he’s shitty at it at first, but, as he keeps warning people in the film, he’s a fast learner.
Damn, is he a fast learner. He is also in the habit of soaking up information, management language and the motivational crap that people spout in political and corporate environments (but don’t actually believe). The thing is, Lou does believe. He doesn’t believe in the actual sentiments and such, but he’s using them as a entry point, to let the gatekeepers of media power know that he can talk some of the talk before knowing how to walk the walk.
The fatal problem is, as the news director of LA’s lowest rating channel finds out to her great discomfort (Rene Russo), that once Lou (who eventually demands to be called Louis, in a nice touch), masters his ‘art’, and the walk and the talk match, it will already be too late: he will already be running the show.
When he starts moving around the ‘elements’ of crime scenes and accidents (by ‘elements’ I mean ‘victims’) in order to get better shots, we’re shocked, and it gives you a decidedly queasy feeling. When he starts entering the crime scenes before even the cops have, then it’s a whole new shocking territory. When he starts orchestrating the carnage himself, without the participants of these ‘productions’ even knowing they’re there because he wants them to be there, then we’re seeing something we haven’t seen before. And, for me at least, it’s phenomenal.
In a different kind of flick Lou’s ambitions and amorality would lead to a different kind of outcome. His inability (or indifference) towards understanding why people see through his politeness and just find him off-putting in a different flick would make him an isolated and tragic figure. That’s not the tack they take here. At all. The complicit media isn’t going to stop him, and the police are way too woefully slow. By the time one police detective thinks she’s figured Lou out, it’s way too late for all concerned.
Because Lou possesses (or lacks) certain personality traits or capacities, and because they are characteristics that co-exist in tandem with the ruthless media machine, Lou becomes the perfect creature to navigate Los Angeles’s pitiless nights and triumph from it. Once Lou realises the position that he’s in, the power that he’s always wanted that he can now exert, of course he’s going to be thoroughly horrible with it, but he’s meticulous enough to protect himself at all times.
Once Lou comes into his ‘own’, and once his opponents find out to their cost that there are no limits to what Lou will do, the film enters a sequence that is every bit as thrilling as it is monstrous. What Lou orchestrates, I thought, is an incredibly tenuous and dangerous scenario, where people’s lives aren’t even of the level of worth of chess pieces: they are completely superfluous in the pursuit of Lou’s art. At first I thought in the orchestration that there were glaring errors that would doom Lou for his hubris. It turned out Lou was a step ahead of us, just as he is ahead of the slow learners in the story.
And it is art. I’m not going to argue that the last section of the film is plausible, but, goddamn, it is compelling. All the horror, all the death, all the carnage that can be laid at Lou’s feet? When the much put-upon news director sees the final product, all she can say is “Beautiful, it’s beautiful”.
And it is beautiful. Beautifully horrifying. This isn’t going to be a popular opinion, and no-one’s going to care once the Oscars have been and gone, but Gyllenhaal was totally robbed by not getting a nomination at least. Sure, he wouldn’t have been able to compete with biopic gay geniuses who beat the Nazis during the war or disabled geniuses in wheelchairs with robot voices, but this was flat out the best performance from any actor I saw from a film that came out in 2014. Gyllenhaal is thoroughly evil but incredibly, masterfully great as this character, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating by calling this a great film that makes me more uneasy the more I think about it.
9 times I wonder when this creepy genius actually sleeps out of 10
“Who am I? I'm a hard worker. I set high goals and I've been told that I'm persistent.” – you should be the next President, I think, if there’s any justice in this world - Nightcrawler