Stripped of its two towering central performances, “Nightcrawler” is still a pretty good thriller about the unsavoury world of late night news and the scavenging camera crews roaming the night to film the grisly aftermath of violent crimes and accidents across the city. But thanks to Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, it transcends its sleazy neon noir roots to become something altogether more fascinating and uncomfortable.
When Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal), an unemployed grifter looking for a way to earn a living stumbles across a camera crew filing an accident, his eyes are opened to the world of freelance video journalism. Inspired, he barters a handheld video camera in exchange for a stolen bike and begins his career filming the aftermath of a carjacking. When morning news director Nina (Russo) buys his footage and encourages him to continue his work, Lou single-mindedly focusses on delivering to her requirements: grisly and violent incidents in affluent neighbourhoods.
Lou Bloom is a newly minted cinematic monster, the likes of which we haven’t really seen since Patrick Bateman in “American Psycho”, but here the defining qualities are different even though the results are just as chilling. Gyllenhaal’s magnificent performance is a study in ambition, single-mindedness and an absolute lack of empathy. Bloom is, in effect, the American Sociopath. His 1000-watt sincerityTM beams out from his wide eyes and toothy grins, hiding the ruthless determination to succeed at whatever cost and no matter who gets in his way: a merciless pursuit of the American Dream.
In contrast, Rene Russo’s Nina wears her heartless, cynicism on her sleeve, barking orders and riding roughshod over the sensibilities of her colleagues in her pursuit of ratings however that too is a mask hiding an aging and vulnerable woman, all too aware of how tenuous her position is within the TV station and the industry as a whole: Blanche DuBois in a Kevlar vest.
The film looks superb, with night time Los Angeles lurid and kinetic, like the greasily colourful striations in an oily puddle. The incidents Lou films and an on-going police investigation add a sense of urgency but it’s the interaction and power play between Lou and Nina that forms the compulsive core of this movie. Lou crosses line after line without hesitation, glibly rationalising each callous action in his own mind as a necessary step on his intended path, all with Nina’s tacit encouragement.
A heady and intoxicating character study with a great cast, “Nightcrawler” is a restless, manically focussed and gripping piece of cinema.