Gyllenhall makes ‘Nightcrawler’ ‘jarring, richly satisfying’

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The crime thriller, “Nightcrawler,” offers a protagonist, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is a marginalized member of society. He’s carved out a nocturnal niche in Los Angeles, stealing copper wire and other metal from construction sites and reselling it to scarp yards.

In an introductory scene, Lou cuts through a chain link fence, surrounding a work site. When a security guard captures him in the act. Lou claims that he is simply lost and seems like a pathetic wuss. That is until he cold cocks the guy. Just for good measure, Lou steals the security guard’s watch. Keep your eye on the purloined watch. It provides one of the myriad little touches that distinguish this well-crafted film.

One evening, by sheer happenstance, Lou stumbles onto the shadowy world of nightcrawlers. At a roadside auto collision, he encounters Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), the head of a freelance camera crew, laden with high tech equipment. As Lou learns, Loder and his fellow predators monitor scanners for coded police calls. They then rush to the scenes of fires, car crashes, rapes, and homicides, where they videotape the proceedings. The footage is sold to local news stations as fodder for their broadcasts. As the film reminds us, when it comes to local news, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

Lou proves to be a quick study. Using a number of ploys, the neophyte develops an uncanny knack for getting to the scene and grabbing footage before his competitors arrive.  If the police aren’t around, Lou is not adverse to manipulating the scene to enhance the luridness of his footage. Will Lou’s lack of scruples make him a good fit for the demands of the local news industry for eye-popping footage at all costs?

We are accustomed to watching the polished delivery of well-coiffed anchors on local news broadcasts. Here, the anchors at WKLA, Ben Waterman (Rick Chambers) and Lisa Mays (Holly Hanula), are presented as vapid twits. Their skill set consists of being photogenic and an ability to read a teleprompter.

“Nightcrawler” provides us with a behind the scenes look at the pressure-packed news operations of a local television station. Traditional journalistic standards have been jettisoned in favor of a new ethos. Each station must create an insatiable audience appetite for sensationalized stories, then pander to the addiction. We witness the cynical decisions that are routinely made to advance this ratings-crazed agenda.

Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is a veteran news director at WKLA. After years in the industry, she has adopted a purely pragmatic, Darwinistic approach to the news. According to her, the perfect story is, “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”

Jake Gyllenhaal in a screen capture from the movie trailer of "Nightcrawler" at  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lEdwqwOttg

Jake Gyllenhaal in a screen capture from the movie trailer of “Nightcrawler” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lEdwqwOttg

Upon delivering some gory footage to the station, Lou meets Nina. She compliments Lou on his work and acknowledges that he has a good eye. What she fails to recognize is that Lou has his eye on her.

Gyllenhall’s subsequent scenes with Russo, sizzle with mounting psychoemotional and psychosexual tension. Lou demonstrates that he is a master negotiator, who reflexively seeks advantage in every interaction, be it professional or personal.  When Lou attempts to leverage some particularly juicy footage into an amorous encounter with Nina, she protests indignantly. The hardened news director cites the fact that she is double her suitor’s age. Moreover, Nina insists that she never has personal relationships with anyone from the work place. Undaunted, Lou delineates a phlegmatic, well-reasoned argument why a liaison would be mutually beneficial. You can feel Nina’s steely resolve melting in the face of his brazen pitch.

Lou catches a big break. He and his ride along assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), arrive at the scene of a bloody home invasion in an affluent neighborhood before the police show up. Unconstrained by any ethical qualms, Rick enters the crime scene and videotapes the carnage. Is the footage ethical? Is it even legal? Nina rejects the concerns of her colleagues and airs the footage. The scoop is a boon to ratings. Has Lou unscrupulously concealed a key element of the story?

In the lead role, Jake Gyllenhaal is simply phenomenal. He creates a captivating character, who is an amalgam of consummate charm and intelligence, yet devoid of any ethical mooring. This conscience-free character enters the gallery of great screen sociopaths alongside Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs” and Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho.” Dating back to “Donnie Darko” and continuing though subsequent films like “Love and Other Drugs,” “End of Watch,” and last year’s “Prisoners,” Gyllenhaal has proven to be a reliably capable actor in  a wide variety of roles. In “Nightcrawler,” he delivers a stunning performance, which is simultaneously alluring and horrifying. The role should redefine his career.

Can Rene Russo really be sixty? It strains credulity. Here, the erstwhile model looks great, while providing a character, who is simultaneously a dramatic foil and object of desire for Gyllenhaal’s character. Bill Paxton as a rival nightcrawler and Riz Ahmed as Lou’s hapless assistant are also quite well cast. Despite limited screen time, even tertiary characters like Jonathan Coyne as a pawn shop operator and Michael Hyatt as a skeptical female police detective both register.

Previously, Dan Gilroy has penned the screenplays for “The Fall” and “Real Steel, then co-wrote “Bourne Legacy.” In his debut at the helm, Gilroy (who is married to Russo) delivers a remarkably self-assured direction of his own script. He delivers a film, which is suspenseful, well-paced, and pulse-pounding.

Robert Elswit, Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular cinematographer, provides his customary fine touch here. His lighting scheme beautifully depicts downtown Los Angeles twinkling at night. James Newton Howard’s score enhances the film’s underlying intensity. John Gilroy, the twin brother of the writer/director, edits the film with panache.

Courtesy of a magnetic performance by Jake Gyllenhall, “Nightcrawler” is a jarring, albeit richly satisfying, film.  It is both a compelling profile of a successful sociopath and an astute indictment of the local news industry. After seeing this film, you’ll never watch your local broadcast in the same way.

“Nightcrawler” ***1/2 R (for violence including graphic images, and for language) 117 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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