The Plot: Petty criminal Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) makes his living stealing manhole covers and chain-link fences, selling them as scrap metal to the most convenient buyer. He craves financial stability, however, and wants to straighten up and fly right. One night, a career path drops into his lap: nightcrawling. What does a nightcrawler do? He cruises around LA all night with a police scanner and a camera, hoping to catch some on-the-scene footage of car crashes, stabbings, shootings, home invasions—anything gruesome or unsettling—to sell to the most desperate news station. Before long Bloom’s mild-mannered, unassuming friendliness starts to show glimpses of the apathetic sociopath hiding underneath.
Before you ask, no, this has nothing to do with the X-Men character of the same name; Gyllenhaal refused that level of makeup. No, this Nightcrawler truly earns its ominous title. The film’s atmosphere mixes the electric neon nightlife of Los Angelis with the grim, disturbing reality of character study. Bloom’s slow descent into dispassion follows a rocky trail of blood, bodies, crime, money, and—worst of all—glamour and success. This seemingly, or perhaps preferably oxymoronic combination of thematic elements generates a single, acute commentary on the sensationalizing tendencies of news media and the harshness of dehumanization for the sake of turning a profit.
This film marks the directorial debut of writer Dan Gilroy (who also wrote The Bourne Legacy, Real Steel, and the eminently wonderful top-10 film The Fall). He directs competently, but shines more clearly in the taut, methodical screenplay. The narrative arc hits all the same points of the omnipresent Cinderella story, focusing on a hapless, but affable individual who builds a future for himself. Bloom actually embodies several of the ideals of the American Dream, such as, in the immortal words of Principal Skinner, “hard work and stick-to-itiveness.” It… it bothers me that Microsoft Word recognizes “stick-to-itiveness” as a word. It bothers me deep down inside my soul. Sorry, let’s get back on track. That just… that just kind of threw me through a loop. Right, so, American Dream. Yeah, Bloom represents that ideal gone wrong, but Gilroy remains careful to disguise his criticism with the tone of a real success story. The darker elements of Bloom’s development lurk in the script the same way they do within him. We sense them immediately, and Gilroy shows them immediately, but he keeps us comfortable with chipper dialogue, fast pacing, and constant reassurances that we have no reason for alarm or distress. Thanks, Mr. Gilroy! I can relax now. The wary observer can note that Bloom has the exact same effect on the supporting characters. People fall for the façade, even when it falters slightly or starts to fade. In this way, Gilroy layers Bloom’s development on multiple levels to create a pleasantly complex character study.
Of course, Jake Gyllenhaal does his fair share, too. I like Jake Gyllenhaal, though not fanatically. More accurately, I appreciate him; his approach to acting often encroaches on the realm of smug irony, and I have occasionally gotten the impression that he thinks of himself as greater than the roles he plays. Imagine the photonegative of Vincent Price, and you envision the Gyllenhaal that every so often leaves me feeling completely empty. Last year’s Prisoners made me view him in a different light, however, and I realized that when he does care about a part, he really cares. He totally invests himself. Nightcrawler boasts another excellent turn from Jake Gyllenhaal, one which could certainly garner a nomination from the Academy, though probably not a win… not that I ever predict the Oscars, and definitely not that those rapidly approach, and above all else not that I think about them every time I see a new release even though every year I tell myself not to because I never find them interesting and I always end up a little disappointed. Nothing like that.
Now that I’ve sung its praises a fair amount, I take this opportunity to reassure everyone that Nightcrawler falls appropriately short of perfection. It accomplishes what it wants to accomplish, no more and no less, but I think it could have done more. Refreshingly, this Oscar movie avoided falling short of overly ambitious goals by simply not having any, and so it shall not win a single Oscar. I consider this film totally successful, but yeah, maybe it could have aimed just a teensy bit higher.
The one noteworthy fault that I identified regards the ending. Gilroy manages to miss about four perfect endings in the last ten minutes of the movie. The first one comes up and you think to yourself, “Ah, yeah, totally the final shot.” Nope, the film continues. It continues to do good stuff though, so why complain? You think to yourself, “Nah, maybe that ending lacked. This, though, here we go: final shot.” Repeat as (un)necessary until we all arrive at the undeniable, accepted perfect ending, so good and appropriate and summative that it makes all those fake endings look like crap. Satisfied? Good. Now sit through sixty more second of movie. Sixty somewhat innocuous, but ultimately unhelpful seconds. While nowhere near enough to ruin the movie, it disappointed ever so slightly, but if that remains my only complaint, I guess we can declare everything A-Okay.
By the end, nothing stops Nightcrawler from delivering its hard-hitting, thought-provoking message about the filtering properties of TV, how anyone can look dispassionately on a face on a screen or a name in the paper without considering the value of a human life, and what happens when that apathetic attitude becomes a way of life.