First-time writer-director Dan Gilroy (who has written films as varied as FREEJACK to THE FALL to THE BOURNE LEGACY) has made a movie that almost dares you to find something redeemable about its lead character. In NIGHTCRAWLER, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, in easily the best performance of his career) is a man made up by uncut ambition and drive, but he can't find an outlet for his level of dangerous energy. Then one day, he stumbles upon an accident, and within seconds a freelance camera crew is on the scene, capturing the raw blood and mayhem of the moment. Once the scene is under control, the crew packs up, and by that evening, their footage is bought, paid for and aired by a local TV news station in LA. It doesn't take Lou long to think that this "nightcrawling" might be a line of work he could pull off and be good at.
Over the course of the film, Gilroy lays out two very distinct but intertwined stories. One is, of course, Lou's path to learning the ropes of both getting to a crime scene before anyone else and getting paid handsomely for one's footage. His passion and talent for the job go well beyond the age-old TV news adage "If it bleeds, it leads." He's understands how much blood equals how much cash, and he's not above repositioning bodies and other manipulations to get better footage. And pretty soon, he's shooting alongside the professionals (including one played by Bill Paxton, who gives him a few tips early on, before Lou becomes actual competition) and getting paid regularly by one struggling local network, whose news division is run by Nina Romina (a great return to form by Rene Russo).
Along the way, Lou realizes that he'll need a right-hand man, but rather than hire someone with nose for news, he selects a rather malleable young lunkhead named Frank (Kevin Rahm), who is so happy that he has any money coming in, he doesn't question the ethics of Lou's behavior. Like any reputable sociopath, Lou's behavior escalates, and in one harrowing, sickening instance, he arrives at a multiple homicide before the police and is able to capture the criminals leaving right before he enters the house and films the carnage up close after an entire family has been wiped out. But Lou also becomes something of a master of negotiating with Romina, and includes as part of their deal that they go on dates together. She's so desperate for his footage, she agrees; and he's so delusional that he believes she might actually like him.
NIGHTCRAWLER builds to an almost unreal series of scenes in which Lou actually manipulates circumstance so that he's front and center for a police shootout and high-speed chase, placing him about a half-step from actually committing the crimes himself. With his eyes almost popping out of his head with anticipation of the blood to come, Gyllenhaal accomplishes something here that is like nothing I've seen from any actor in recent years. His barely contained intensity boils to the surface and sometimes explodes at times and in way that are consistently unexpected.
And while, Lou seems to be operating at one highly competitive level, it's when he seem to downshift and relax that he actually seems more dangerous. It's actually fascinating to watch an actor play a character to whom guilt is not a factor. He never wants to get caught, but it's certainly not because he thinks he's doing anything wrong. The police and the rules of conduct are obstacles, but not deterrents.
I've seen many films shot in Los Angeles. Some make it looks glorious, with impressive architecture and shining lights. But NIGHTCRAWLER cinematographer Robert Elswit does something completely different with this version of LA, with its sickly yellow street lights, over-saturated headlights, and gritty streets filled with low lifes. It works within the framework of the film, since Gilroy wants the city to appear to be a place where crime or other forms of bloodshed could happen at any moment, transforming this powerful piece of moviemaking into an exercise in tension and release and then more tension.
I said it last week as well about Jason Schwartzman's work in LISTEN UP PHILIP—you don't have to like your lead character to enjoy the hell out of a film, and Nightcrawler might be the best example of that in a very long time. You'll be disgusted and morally outraged by Lou's behavior and journalistic ethics, but you won't be able to avert your eyes for even a second while he's on screen setting the stage for some truly appalling behavior. On top of that, the film works as a fully-functional thriller with tension building exponentially as the story creeps on to its inevitable conclusion. NIGHTCRAWLER might be the closest a film comes to capturing the world we live in than you'd care to admit.