By James Hancock Oct 30, 2014
It might be a little early for Jake Gyllenhaal to start clearing space on his bookshelf for an Oscar, but it is difficult for me to imagine another leading man turning in a more dynamic, contradictory and at times spellbinding performance before the end of the year (I’m still rooting for “Inherent Vice” however). It wounds me to acknowledge this because I have been nurturing a petty hatred for Gyllenhaal ever since I first saw “Donnie Darko” back in 2001. For whatever reason I have always intensely disliked him and his performances but that ends as of right now. From the very first scene where we’re introduced to Louis Bloom, I could tell this was going to be the role of a lifetime for Gyllenhaal with Gyllenhaal showing an incredible, often deliriously insane, range of emotion never seen before in his career. Equally compelling is the work by writer-director Dan Gilroy, who has been working as a screenwriter for decades and only now has chosen to make his debut as a director. He has created a dark neo-noir atmosphere from the nighttime cityscape of Los Angeles that is impossible to look away from, a city full of cutthroat journalists in a mad race to reign supreme atop a mountain of total scumbags. This time of year when we’re typically flooded with respectable Oscar bait getting in position for award season, it is relief to have a movie like this where the filmmakers appear to enjoy testing just how far they can take this dark, morbid tale before falling over the edge into a complete moral vacuum.
The story is pretty straightforward. Louis Bloom is a pathological liar, a thief and a murderer who is struggling to find his true vocation. He is intelligent but uneducated and works nonstop to make a living however he can, never hesitating to cut corners no matter what moral threshold must be crossed. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the core fundamentals one would expect to learn from an MBA curriculum and constantly strives to put his knowledge to work about business plans, negotiation tactics and how to incentivize employees. Louis finally finds his stride when he embarks on a freelance career of selling video footage from crime scenes to local news stations. While nobody initially is willing to take him seriously, he is a rapid study and when his drive and intelligence don’t enable him to beat his competition he resorts to more deadly measures. What is so fascinating about Gyllenhaal’s performance is how everyone he meets immediately sees through his lies and his upbeat, charming exterior but he generates results that can’t be denied, results that ultimately prove to be essential to Rene Russo’s character who is struggling to get her news show out of last place. The constant source of delight of the movie is watching Louis’s working relationship with his sole employee, a kid from the streets working for $30 a day who gradually comes to understand what kind of monster he is working for. Whenever he tries to second guess Louis, Louis will rattle off a brilliant speech about the fundamentals about how to build a business, the art of climbing a corporate hierarchy, the importance of communication, etc. almost like a mantra, all of which flies over the poor kid’s head while leaving him unconvinced and continually exploited. I think that a few years from now, movie fans will look back on this role as a turning point in the career of Jake Gyllenhaal much like in the late 90s when Brad Pitt switched gears into roles in movies like “Fight Club” (1999) and “Snatch” (2000). While I do not place “Nightcrawler” in the same league as Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) I think many hardcore movie fans will be drawing comparisons between the character of Louis Bloom and De Niro’s Travis Bickle, particularly his early scenes with the character played by Cybill Shepherd where she knows something is off about the man sitting in front of her but can’t quite put her finger on what is deeply wrong about him. Louis Bloom is a disturbed human being but in one of the most twisted manipulations by a director in a long time, the film absolutely had me rooting for his success from start to finish. It is not often that a movie leaves the audience hoping that a complete sociopath will enjoy success in all of his endeavors, but writer-director Dan Gilroy has accomplished exactly that. I have no idea if mainstream audiences will accept and appreciate this story of a relentless opportunist but for me it was one of the most sickeningly hysterical films I have seen in quite a while. If you have a taste for stories about the darkness in people’s souls, “Nightcrawler” will leave you absolutely delighted.
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