For the past decade, Jake Gyllenhaal has delivered remarkably good performances in numerous movies, approaching greatness with an increased frequency and consistency in just the last few years. In Source Code, End of Watch, and last year’s Prisoners, Gyllenhaal seemed always on the cusp of becoming recognized for the undervalued talent he’s become, but he’s never quite broken through with critics and awards, always being overshadowed by a script, a director, or a co-star. Come the end-of-year lists and awards ceremonies in a few months, Nightcrawler could very well change all that.
Giving his most complex and haunting performance as Louis Bloom, Gyllenhaal crafts a character that is wholly unique and unforgettably focussed. When we meet Bloom, he is existing through intense determinism and adaptability, ready to change career paths from a scrap metal thief to a construction worker the moment the idea occurs to him.
When Bloom, driving around the midnight streets of L.A., stumbles upon a car crash, he discovers the profession of freelance video journalism and finds himself obsessed with the idea. He tackles the job with meticulous and obsessive detail, mechanically working to become the best at it and discarding anyone in his way once he’s gained everything he can from them.
As Bloom begins brokering deals with a morning news show director (Rene Russo, the best she’s been in years) and working with a desperate partner (Riz Ahmed) to chase down stories with the use of GPS and a police scanner, he starts making more and more decisions in his chase of occupational success that endanger those around him.
Increment by increment, Bloom crosses increasingly unethical lines. Invading a victim’s personal space soon gives him the gall to move a dead body to an area of better lighting for video, before the police show up. From there, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump to controlling more and more of the disasters that he films, until he’s committing just as many crimes in the chase of filming the perfect story.
Nightcrawler is certainly, on one level, a cutting indictment of TV journalism and the chase for sensationalized “news.” Don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a dry drama, though. Writer-director Dan Gilroy creates a disturbing unease that permeates the entire movie, keeping you on edge even in scenes wherein nothing bad happens. Moments that would normally get played off as awkward comedy become uncomfortable and disquieting with the twisted lens Gilroy uses to view Bloom.
From beginning to end, the script for Nightcrawler is perfectly written, expertly plotted, and exactly paced. Very early into the movie, you can get the feeling that you’re in the safe hands of a storyteller who knows what he’s doing, while allows that rare experience of simply sitting back and trusting the movie to know what it’s doing. By the time the film reaches its beyond-gripping climax, you actually don’t want the movie to end yet.
Gyllenhaal gives the performance of his career as Bloom, shedding twenty pounds before filming to give himself a gaunt frame that makes his character look just that much more eerie. With the bulging eyes of a drug-addicted Muppet and some of the most uncomfortably intense stares this side of Hannibal Lecter, Gyllenhaal makes Bloom a character every bit as memorably sociopathic as Christian Bale’s in American Psycho, Robin Williams’ in One Hour Photo, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ in There Will Be Blood. It’s riveting to watch and impossible to shake.
Upon witnessing his twitchy performance in last year’s Prisoners, this humble critic predicted that within five years, Jake Gyllenhaal would get an Oscar. It may just take a single year, after the powerhouse performance he gives here. Quite a number of the moviegoers leaving the theatre were saying that Gyllenhaal had to get an Oscar nomination for this. He absolutely should — and if there’s justice, it’ll be just one of many recognitions Nightcrawler gets, as one of the very best movies of 2014.