Just four or five years ago, Jake Gyllenhaal seemed headed for mainstream movie stardom, but Prince of Persia, a box-office disappointment, seemingly derailed those plans (if they were, indeed plans). Gyllenhaal smartly turned to smaller budgeted, indie-oriented, challenging roles, turning in one complex, layered, and nuanced performance after another, from obsessive, driven beat cops and detectives (End of Watch, Prisoners) to neurotic, disillusioned college professors (Enemy) and now, in perhaps his career-best performance, as the title character in writer-turned-director Dan Gilroy’s (The Bourne Legacy, Real Steel, The Fall) feature-length debut, Nightcrawler, part character study, part media satire, and part corporate/capitalist takedown (cf., Taxi Driver, American Psycho, Network). It succeeds on every level, thanks in large part to Gilroy’s incisive, trenchant script, similarly tight, taut direction, and a top-to-bottom cast led by Gyllenhaal’s award-worthy performance.
When we first meet Gyllenhaal’s character, Louis Bloom, he’s tearing down a fence on private property, collecting bits and pieces of the fence, copper wiring, and even manhole covers. It’s illegal, of course. Bloom shows the first glimmers of his true nature when he encounters a security guard, figuratively disarming him with a barrage of words before taking him down and escaping with his ill-gotten gains. At least at first, Bloom is a bottom-feeder, a scavenger, and a loner. He lives alone in a down-market apartment with only a plant he feeds steadily to keep him company. He has larger designs and ambitions, though, as his self-help-generated patter indicates. He might be unschooled, but he’s spent a lifetime absorbing self-help manuals and business books. He’s a firm believer in the American Dream, a corrupted, twisted version of the American Dream, but it’s the only one left. And in Bloom, it finds its apotheosis.
On the surface, Bloom might seem like another garden-variety sociopath. Look deeper and Bloom reveals himself to be an entrepreneur-in-waiting, turning Nightcrawler, intentionally or not, into a critique of American capitalism and to take it a step further, start-up culture and the dysfunctional masculinity at the core of that culture. All of those self-help manuals and business books come in handy eventually. Fascinated by the film crew that almost magically appears seconds after the police at a roadside accident, Bloom finds his vocation: freelancing as a scavenger of another kind, filming the grisly aftermaths of car accidents and crime scenes. He’s more interested by what they do and who they are than assisting the police in saving an injured woman from a burning wreck. To that end, Bloom purchases a cheap camcorder and police scanner from a local pawn shop (off the proceeds from a high-end bike theft no less). Almost immediately, he lucks into a crime scene, filming the last, dying moments of a stabbing victim.
Bloom, however, needs a literal partner-in-crime to succeed. He finds his counterpart, Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a past-her-prime news director facing the ignoble end of a once promising career. Nina firmly believes that ratings depend on getting shocking, violent images and she’s not far off. Bloom’s competitor, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), throws out the oft-said line about local news, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Nina has not only taken that motto to heart, she’s willing to bend the rules, legal, ethical, and moral to get the footage she thinks will raise her station’s dismal ratings. She’s not far off from how local media operates in the real world, making Nightcrawler a critique, albeit a superficial one, of the sensationalistic press in its myriad manifestations (e.g., print, online, TV). Bloom isn’t above (or below) manipulating and/or blackmailing Nina as necessary to elevate himself and his fledging news-gathering organization, an organization consisting of Bloom and Rick (Riz Ahmed), a down-on-his luck homeless man willing to make a few compromises of his own to survive.
Rick emerges, however, as the closest analogue to a moral center in Nightcrawler. While he inevitably goes along with Bloom’s increasingly dangerous plans for obtaining crime-scene footage, he also hesitates, calling out Bloom for his unethical behavior. Rick’s survival instinct, however, makes any moral or ethical qualms he has about Bloom a secondary or tertiary concern. Bloom’s initially off-putting nature, his penchant for turning every conversation into a self-help seminar, proves key to disarming practically everyone who stands in his way. He’s repeatedly dismissed and ignored, but his supposedly poor social skills give him an advantage others miss until it’s too late. If nothing else, Nightcrawler serves as a compelling, if not downright chilling, object lesson of how a sociopath like Bloom can rise to a position of power, prestige, and, inevitably, material wealth with relative ease. Whether seen as a character study, media satire, or corporate/capitalism, Nightcrawler succeeds at them all.