For many years, I had considered Jake Gyllenhaal to be something of a middle of the road actor. Bare in mind, I always thought he was talented (I was particularly taken with his impressive work in ‘Donnie Darko’) , but I was simply never blown away by his performances. He seemed like the type of actor who seemed content to coast off of playing various versions of himself. Then ‘Prince of Persia’ happened, and with that seemed to come a change in his mentality. Since then, he’s been going out of his way to do impressive work, with ‘End of Watch’ and ‘Prisoners’ being personal highlights. Now, with ‘Nightcrawler’ he’s bent on completing that journey by utterly disappearing into a character.
The film takes place on the moonlit, blood soaked streets of LA. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a feverishly determined, deeply pathological thief trying to find something that he can adapt into, and make legitimate money doing. He finds this calling when he stumbles upon the world of nightcrawlers, people who film horrific crime and accident scenes as they happen, and then sell the footage to local news stations. He decides that he will destroy all competition in this field, namely the cocky Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), by starting his own business with the help of Rick (Riz Ahmed), a desperate intern willing to work for any money he can get. All of this is very impressive to the head of the local news station (Rene Russo), who dosen’t quite know what she’s getting into by partnering with Lou.
I quite simply cannot talk about this film without first highlighting just how much Jake Gyllenhaal owns every single frame of it. Having shed twenty pounds, he looks gaunt and shrill, and has a personality to match. Lou is a no-nonsense kind of guy, finding the perfect psychological bullet points that allow him to both be completely direct with people, while still manipulating them to suit his needs. Every patronizing word out of this man’s mouth is fascinating, and every creepy mannerism is chilling. This very well could be the performance of Gyllenhaal’s career, and it elevates what could have been a fairly standard thriller into a character study that feels very special indeed.
The other actors, while very much in Gyllenhaal’s shadow, do a really solid job as well. Russo has her meatiest turn in years here, selling every conflicted second of her character as she rides the line of her professional and personal needs, while Ahmed has wonderful chemistry with Gyllenhaal as they go about their nightly missions. While you can’t quite say that a bond forms between these two, it’s fascinating to watch someone who is by all means a regular guy interact and work with someone so far gone. I’ve never seen Ahmed before, and hopefully this can be his gateway to more roles in the future. Also, you can quite simply never have enough Bill Paxton, and while the film under-utilizes his character slightly, he’s still great fun.
There’s also some wonderful moments of intensity rife with tension here. First time director Dan Gilroy (who also writes) has a style fairly reminiscent of what Nick Winding Refin achieved with ‘Drive’, balancing a very potent sense of calm and cool with moments of extreme violence. He does a fantastic job of capturing just how dangerous these streets are, with atrocities seemingly happening at every turn. When the film does go into action mode, it’s quick, brutal, and very will filmed. After all, Lou is always preaching how important it is to film things with steady hands.
The only thing that brings down ‘Nightcrawler’ slightly is how one note the plot can feel at times. Once Lou starts to get comfortable as a Nightcrawler, the film settles into a fairly basic rhythm, essentially acting as a procedural for a while as Lou works his way up the ladder. It’s mostly necessary for the story, but it does slightly detract from how dynamic the film gets at points.
‘Nightcrawler’ certainly works more as a character study than as an actual story, but what a character study it is. I cannot praise Jake Gyllenhaal enough here for his fantastic work here. This is a guy who’s here to stay, and I will now look forward to anything and everything he appears in. Beyond that, it’s a lot of fun as a gritty crime thriller, working with a solid script full of great dialogue, and what I have to say is an especially solid final act. If you’re wanting something a little more grim as the Christmas decorations start going up, and your relatives start making calls about when they’re coming and where they’re staying, this is your ticket.