The bright lights of a scenic Los Angeles illuminate the screen and Jake Gyllenhaal’s ghoulish and demonic performance as a sociopathic go-getting investigator sends shivers down the spine. Writer-director Dan Gilroy makes his feature debut with Nightcrawler after receiving notable screenplay credits for the white-knuckled action thrill rides, Real Steel (2011) and The Bourne Legacy (2012). Gilroy’s latest bout offers a film with a darker, more twisted tone than the mainstream popcorn cinema he has previously worked on. Nightcrawler is, however, ultimately let down by its sluggish pacing and its own self-importance.
The story centres on Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal), a socially awkward loner who is aggressively motivated in his pursuits. He is prepared to overcome anyone in his way, and through any means necessary. Nightcrawler begins with Bloom assaulting a security guard after he is caught trying to steal from the local scrapyard and, to add insult to injury, he swipes the guard’s expensive-looking watch. He later encounters Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), part of a freelance camera crew, who captures the aftermath of gruesome incidents of crime and car accidents. They are the kind of accidents that leave their victims caped in blood and clinging to their fading lives, only to then become local news headlines.
Bloom, inspired to pursue his own journalistic endeavours, steals a bike that he fraudulently sells to a local pawn store, exaggerating its quality and fabricating its features in order to fund new camera equipment. Enraging the local police and ambulance services by constantly thrusting his lens into the faces of the almost-dead victims, the film consequently reveals Bloom’s inner-evil and sinister motives.
Bloom aims to expand his wicked enterprise and satisfy his own self-centred aspirations. He hires an assistant in Rick (Riz Ahmed), a timid, vulnerable job-seeker looking to make a decent living. Their friendship almost becomes a Batman and Robin parody with Rick as the naïve and devoted apprentice, hanging on Bloom’s every word and decision, whilst Bloom roars expletives from the front passenger seat in the high-speed car chases. The scenes of Bloom’s red Dodge Challenger racing through the streets of Los Angeles evokes Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011), a superior drama in many ways. Nightcrawler lacks Drive’s dynamism, the pulsating soundtrack and a narrative that has a consistent impact throughout, not just in its climax. The film’s failure to fulfil its own potential positions it in Drive’s shadow, whilst triggering reminders of what a masterpiece that film is.
Gyllenhaal’s performance is remarkable and striking and he oozes charisma that is both chilling yet captivating. Gyllenhaal lost almost one-and-a-half stone for the role of Bloom, leaving him with a skeletal build and features that accentuate his menacing and unblinking stare, whilst also providing a window into the hollow soul of a villainous anti-hero. Bloom is at times loathsome and, unfortunately, this compromises probable enthusiasm for the character, but not Gyllenhaal’s performance. This is not helped by the equally irritable and, in some instances, bland support characters. Perhaps it is due to Gyllenhaal’s exuberance but Ahmed occasionally appears insignificant and dull. Ahmed’s acting prowess is never fully capitalised on, which is disappointing when considering the previous work he has been involved in, such as the sensational Four Lions (2010). His role shows a clear intended purpose for comedy but laughs are in short-supply and his character does not display enough complexity to take proper interest in.
Nightcrawler accommodates themes that touch on the muddy ethics of journalism and media bias that become personified by the rating-obsessed news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a desperate yet eager customer for Bloom’s grizzly videos. Although Russo’s performance offers something powerful in its relentlessness, it soon becomes exasperating to be in such extended company of someone so self-orientated and simply unlikeable.
The shady and improper practices of the news industry are hardly unfamiliar to a general audience, and to lecture about this topic in a film that believes itself to be pioneering is utterly underwhelming. Nightcrawler is ignorant to its own pretentiousness in creating a caricature of the news, and rapidly elevates into overblown preaching.
The film has an intriguing premise and a satisfying resolution but it is ultimately thirty minutes too long. Scenes are sometimes overdrawn, frustrating and unnecessary. The film is aesthetically stylish enough for an immersive watch but Nightcrawler’s artistic finesse and odd fluorescence is drowned out by its self-regard and over-ambition. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t quite live up to the headline.