Dan Gilroy’s ‘Nightcrawler’ is an acidic media satire and a terrifying portrait of a sociopath that is at once a movie of its moment and the type antihero character study that would have felt at home in 1970s Hollywood. It’s a nasty and unconventional film that already feels like one of the best of the year and will hopefully release Gilroy from the shackles of blockbuster screenwriting.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as a uniquely driven sociopath. He opens the film wandering around trying to talk strangers into giving him work until he stumbles upon Bill Paxton’s ambulance-chasing video journalist, who makes his living selling grisly video footage of crime scenes to news networks. Soon, Gyllenhaal buys his own camera and starts selling footage to Rene Russo’s desperate local news producer. As time wears on, Gyllenhaal becomes so obsessed and successful at his new job that he sheds all sense of morality and his ability to treat other humans as people. He starts manipulating those around him to his own benefit, stomping out anyone who might stand in his way, and doing unbelievable things to find footage that will advance his career.
The film’s tone wavers from a harshly satirical attack on the lack of media ethics in the digital age with laughs that hurt, to a genuinely disturbing portrait of a new breed of sociopath formed by that world. Writer/director Gilroy (‘The Bourne Legacy’) fearlessly delivers a protagonist that never panders for audience sympathy and is fascinating almost purely for his particular brand of psychosis.
Gyllenhaal’s performance just might be his best, locking into a dead-eyed stare that’s impossible to read (taking full advantage of his sunken eyes) and nimbly jumping from horrifying to hilarious without sacrificing psychological realism. The almost-exclusively nighttime cinematography turns Los Angeles into a nightmare of indistinguishable winding roads that serve as a poignant setting for the disturbing tale.
‘Nightcrawler’ is a bitterly brilliant film that springs from a cultural open wound, and Gilroy always follows the path true to his own personal vision rather than any sort of concession to conventional filmmaking. It’s a brilliant piece of work that stands as career highlight for everyone involved. The uncompromisingly (yet entirely appropriate) nastiness of the project might keep ‘Nightcrawler’ out of the warm and fuzzy awards race this year, but it’s certainly a better movie for that.