Jake Gyllenhaal is your tour guide through the sordid LA underbelly.
There's a particular texture to Los Angeles after dark that suits stories of crime and self-interest to a tee. A desolate urban badland of freeways and fast food joints, there's this eeriness; this unnaturalness; this inescapable sense of menace; that seems to creep out of the concrete and set your nerves on edge. You can feel it in Michael Mann's Heat, or in Collateral a decade later. You can feel it in sections of Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive. And you can feel it in Nightcrawler, from writer-director Dan Gilroy, as it glides out of the darkness and seizes you by the throat.
Always at his best when playing characters gripped by obsession – Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain, Robert Graysmith in Zodiac, or Detective David Loki in last year's masterful Prisoners – Jake Gyllenhaal is in career-best form as Lou Bloom, Gilroy's unsettled protagonist, and our tour guide through the sordid LA underbelly. Inspired after witnessing a car accident, Lou decides to carve out a career as a "nightcrawler", videotaping crime scenes and selling them to a local TV station for broadcast on the 6am news.
As a portrait of the ratings-driven news industry, Nightcrawler is scathing, and brutally unsubtle. "Think of our newscast as a screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut." That's the advice of Nina (Rene Russo), Lou's tough-as-nails contact at Channel 6 News. The fact that LA crime stats are actually going down is of little concern to her. In fact if anything, it makes Lou's footage ever more valuable. Watching the two of them negotiate the price of video from a triple homicide scene is so sickeningly callous that you may find yourself driven to laugher. To that end, it's tempting to call Nightcrawler a satire; a pitch black comic exaggeration of reality. And yet you can't help but wonder just how exaggerated it really is.
Likewise, it's frightening to consider whether or not people like Lou actually exist. In an era in which film producers and marketing executives stress "likability" above everything else, Nightcrawler strides boldly in the other direction. It's hard to remember the last film featuring a protagonist as flat-out sociopathic as Mr. Bloom. Hell, even Travis Bickle had good intentions. Full of wisdom cribbed from online self-help guides, Lou's wide grin and friendly demeanour is a bad approximation of humanity; a mask that hides a monster incapable of compassion or remorse.