I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating: The failure of Prince of Persia was the best thing to ever happen to Jake Gyllenhaal. It forced him out of franchise pictures and onto a different career trajectory, one that has made him one of the most interesting, dynamic actors working today. As far as performances go, Gyllenhaal has put up an incredible run beginning Source Code but really starting to to take hold with End of Watch, Prisoners, and Enemy, which reminded us of what a terrific actor he was in movies like Brokeback Mountain (where Ledger got all the attention) and Zodiac.
What’s also interesting about Gyllenhaal is that he’s taking on very different roles in adult-targeted, character-driven films. This guy is flat-out crushing it, and Nightcrawler may be the film where a larger segment of the population finally stands up and takes notice. All due respect to Matthew McConaughey in last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club, but Gyllenhaal’s performance here is better: It’s not just a matter of losing weight and looking bug-eyed and gaunt. Gyllenhaal loses himself in this character, and it’s an immensely challenging, richly-layered knock-out performance.
Even better, if you’re comparing this year’s meaty, actor-driven performance from Gyllenhaal to McConaughey’s in Dallas Buyer’s Club is that Nightcrawler is a more interesting, transfixing film, a thriller from writer/director Dan Gilroy that makes a profound statement about the news industry’s insistence upon sensationalizing grisly violence. It takes the “if it bleeds, it leads” maxim and the industry’s need to prey on our fears and pushes it to its logical, almost realistic extreme.
Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a petty thief in search of a career, who bounds upon a traffic accident where he sees a cameraman (Bill Paxton) circling a burning car like a buzzard, getting footage of a crumpled woman being pulled out by two policeman. On a dime, Bloom decides that murder paparazzi will be his new calling.
Bloom here is something akin to an autistic psychopath: He’s a real go-getter, ambitious, determined, and lousy with people, speaking in mostly self-help platitudes from the business world. He hires an assistant (Ricky), who he communicates with like a meth-addled Bill Lumbergh, but instead of asking for TP reports, he asks for navigation directions, as he listens in on a police scanner and speeds with intense focus through Los Angeles to capture footage of the latest act of violence.
Bloom sells this footage to a struggling local news station ran by Nina Romina (Rene Russo, who it’s nice to see again), and the two form an uneasy, sometimes unsettling partnership. Bloom, however, wants more than a business relationship, and he’s willing to use his exclusive footage as leverage. Starved for ratings and fearing she’ll lose her job, Nina enters into the partnership reluctantly, though ultimately, they both feed off and bond over their shared bloodlust. The storyline ends up taking Bloom to darker and darker places, as he’s forced to up his game, and as you’d expect from a film like this, Bloom ends up driving the narrative as he goes further and further into morally black areas.
Nightcrawler is a dark film, but it’s not punishing or bleak. It’s not the kind of movie you simply watch to appreciate for the themes and performances. It’s also an entertaining and riveting thriller with a certain popcorn quality. Above all, however, it’s Gyllenhaal’s film, and he delivers another incredible performance in a string of incredible performances.