Jake Gyllenhaal is one of those actors I find impressive, if not particularly appealing. He’s got a kind of weasily look that just never speaks “trustworthy” to me. In “Nightcrawler” 2014’s dark thriller about the underbelly of TV news, Gyllenhaal has found his vehicle. His Leo Bloom is disturbingly, intensely untrustworthy. He is, in fact, odious, but Gyllenhaal manages to make him completely compelling. “Nightcrawler” is one of those films you can’t take your eyes off of.
Bloom is an manic presence – driven to succeed, but with a twitchy danger behind his rapid-fire “how to succeed” patter. When we first meet him, our hero is using his disarming smile and non-threatening self-deprecation in the service of petty, sometimes violent theft. After witnessing a disturbing car wreck and the vulture-like freelance cameramen who film the police response, Bloom has a brainstorm. Not particularly creative, but far more driven than most, he pawns a stolen bike for some camera equipment and a police scanner and goes immediately to work. On his first call, Bloom dives right in, filming a shooting victim, inches from the bloody body, flagrantly disregarding the rule to stay back 100 feet. When an officer angrily chases him away, Bloom acts chastised, but the key to this character is a complete lack of humanity. Leo Bloom is a true sociopath. When he barges right into a late night television studio offering tape for sale, Bloom finds a true fellow in the form of Nina, a third-shift news director hungry for anything to capture the viewer’s attention. In describing the kind of content she was looking for, Nina tells Leo, “Picture our newscast as woman running down the street with her throat cut.”
Leo Bloom is a character with big ideas, big dreams, and no patience. He takes his enterprise to the next level almost immediately by hiring a desperate homeless young man as an “intern,” to operate a second camera and to drive to the locations. Really what he wants is an acolyte. But Rick, played excellently by relative newcomer Riz Ahmed, is exactly what Leo is not. He has a conscience, and while not exactly above reproach ethically, Rick is our representative, becoming increasingly alarmed at the spiraling path Bloom is taking him on, as the jobs go from mere filming to actually manipulating events.
I had heard “Nightcrawler” was good when it was initially released last fall, but I hadn’t guessed just how sharply written, and how darkly engaging it was. Gyllenhaal gives the performance of his career, no question. I don’t know whether to call Leo Bloom an anti-hero or a villain, but the character is instantly iconic. Ahmed, as well, does a marvelous job in his role as Bloom’s reluctant accomplice.
Rene Russo, as Nina, is quite good playing a character who only thinks she’s in control. The scene where Bloom informs her otherwise is chilling. Showing up in a small role is Bill Paxton, the competitor “nightcrawler” who unwittingly sets Bloom on his path. As good as the acting is, the writing is top-notch. Bloom’s rapid-fire dialogue is exquisitely written and paced. Writer and first-time director Dan Gilroy knocks it out of the park, expertly intermixing shadow and over-bright lights to depict Los Angeles in the wee hours of the night.
“Nightcrawler” was up for only one Oscar nomination, and it’s a shame because it’s one of the best films I saw from 2014. Of the major awards, only the American Film Institute honored it with a top prize, which is, perhaps, appropriate. The AFI, in theory, honors film of importance and real merit, looking at the long-term impact a movie has. “Nightcrawler” is certainly going to stick with me for a while, and I predict audiences will be rediscovering it for years to come.
“Nightcrawler” is rated R for pervasive language and bloody violence.