‘Nightcrawler’ takes a satirical stab at the sensationalism of contemporary media so sharp that it cuts to the bone. The film embodies the reckless hunger for fresh footage in a frightening sociopath who wouldn’t be out of place in a vintage Scorsese movie. In short, it’s a brilliant bit of dark, rousing filmmaking guaranteed to pop up on Best of the Year lists, and it deserves all of the praise coming its way.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a morally bankrupt young man with overly verbose speech patterns and education that come purely from the internet, and he uses those skills well. In the opening scenes, we see him approaching random strangers looking for a job with a chilly disregard for social conduct. He then stumbles onto Bill Paxton’s lecherous videographer, who travels the streets of L.A. at night in search of grisly crime scene footage to hock to the highest local news bidder. So, Gyllenhaal buys a video camera, forges a bizarre relationship with Rene Russo’s local news producer, and finds himself a career shooting car accidents and robberies. He becomes such a success that he soon hires an intern (Riz Ahmend) to drive him around and starts making a small fortune off local tragedies. Eventually, greed and ambition ensure that’s not nearly enough, and he considers manipulating crime scenes to suit his career goals. Not exactly a great idea.
The film is the directorial debut of screenwriter Dan Gilroy, who previously toiled on blockbuster screenplays such as ‘Real Steel’ and ‘The Bourne Legacy’. Gyllenhaal’s character recalls ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘King of New York’, while Russo’s cutthroat local newsroom is pitched somewhere between ‘Network’ and ‘Broadcast News’. However, the movie that ‘Nightcrawler’ most recalls in the best possible sense is Billy Wilder’s bitter little masterpiece ‘Ace in the Hole‘. Both movies follow journalists who view human tragedy as a means of professional growth and are heartless enough to extend suffering for a better story.
Gilroy’s update on that theme is that his journalist springs from the new media landscape as a videographer. He doesn’t need a skill with wordplay or insight to succeed, just the right camera and enough disregard for good taste to shove his lens where it shouldn’t go. The film is also viciously funny in a way that recalls Wilder. Gilroy’s movie might look and feel like a thriller, but it’s really a satire. He’s acutely aware of the absurdity of this world as much as the horror, and finds harsh laughs without diluting credibility. That’s the thing about good satire. You can dabble deeper into darkness than any drama and viewers will take it since the laughs offer mild relief from the bleakness, even when they stick in your throat.
The performances are outstanding throughout. Ahmend fulfills the promise he showed in the underrated ‘Four Lions‘ in a manner that will hopefully earn him more work in America. Russo and Paxton prove just how good they are and why they shouldn’t be forgotten.
Even so, the film remains the Jake Gyllenhaal show. He’s on screen for almost every second of the running time and commands the screen. Gyllenhaal has always been a difficult sell in traditional leading man roles, given that his boyish looks clash awkwardly with his sunken eyes that suggest hidden darkness even when he’s stuck playing the nice guy. In ‘Nightcrawler’, he has a role with no niceties. His character is a complete sociopath who views everyone around him as a potential chess piece in his career strategy. Early on, this disconnect between himself and other human beings plays for awkward laughs. By the end, it’s a deeply frightening character trait and Gyllenhaal never flinches. He’s created a new monster for the digital age, and it’s easily the best performance of his career, one that deserves major awards attention and will surely earn some.
As Gyllenhaal’s character takes a turn for the frightening, so does Gilroy’s film. By the end, audiences will finds themselves wiping the sweat from their palms during a tense thriller that they didn’t think they signed up for. Yet there’s no uncomfortable tonal shift to get there. Gilroy remains in complete control as a director from start to finish and hops genres so subtly that you won’t even notice until it’s too late.
Possibly the one aspect of ‘Nightcrawler’ that makes it so special amongst this year’s crop of American award hopefuls is how unrelentingly bleak the film is. Based on the trailers, you might expect everyone to hug and make nice at the end, finally coming to terms with what it takes to be an ethical journalist. Thankfully, Gilroy is a far too savvy of a screenwriter for that. His movie never pulls a punch and is both one of the harshest satires and most uncompromising character studies to emerge from Hollywood in years. It’s a feel-bad movie to be sure, but also a surprisingly funny and insightful one.
Undoubtedly, many viewers will hate ‘Nightcrawler’ for all the reasons that make the movie so compelling. In this case, that will qualify as a success. When any artist taps into the genuine ugliness of contemporary culture, many people will want to look away and pretend such things don’t exist. Thankfully, some filmmakers are willing to keep their cameras aimed at such ugly truths. Dan Gilroy is now one of those, and hopefully this is far from his last nasty satire. The American film industry could use more voices like his.