“Nightcrawler” is not, as its title might suggest, the latest DC or Marvel Comics superhero bonanza. On the contrary director Dan Gilroy’s film is a scathing media satire wrapped inside a psychological thriller. It is the kind of movie that might make Nancy Grace shift in her seat.
The film is the story of Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), an ambitious go-getter desperate for a job and obsessed with the American Dream. One evening after yet another rejection, Lou runs across a car accident on the freeway and stops to watch as police officers attempt to rescue the trapped inhabitants of a burning vehicle. Lou, however, is not alone. Joe Loder (a terrific Bill Paxton) is also on the scene, taping all of the gruesome proceedings on his camcorder so that he can later sell the footage to the highest-bidding news network. Lou becomes intrigued by the world of crime journalism so he buys a camera and a police scanner, hires an assistant (Riz Ahmed), and sets out to make a name for himself. As Lou drifts further into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles and his competition with Joe intensifies, however, he finds himself throwing ethics to the wind in order to get the most gruesome angle or shot, the kinds of images the struggling news director Nina (Rene Russo) lusts after.
“Nightcrawler” is more of a black comedy than it is a thriller, but it has some undeniably brilliant set pieces that will make your hair stand on end. The satire is also a strikingly edited film, feeling incredibly and unnervingly authentic from beginning to end. One particularly bravura sequence follows Lou and his assistant, Rick, as they follow a police chase through the dark streets of L.A. Even though car chases are hardly original at this point, there were audible gasps in the theater during this one thanks to the masterful pacing of director Gilroy, who’s brother Tony wrote two of the Bourne movies and directed the excellent Michael Clayton. Both Gilroys clearly have a knack for creating believable dramatic tension.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, too, is a thing of brilliance. His Lou has echoes of both his chatty neurotic reporter from Zodiac and Christian Bale’s calculatingly perverse killer from American Psycho, but, ultimately, Lou is a wholly original character. This is Gyllenhaal like we have never seen him before, totally unhinged and having a great deal of fun as this sick but incredibly entertaining character.
The film’s screenplay is also outstanding. It certainly hammers its point home pretty vehemently, but whatever obviousness it may have almost adds to Gilroy’s social commentary. The movie is hilarious, in a dark way, but what I love most about “Nightcrawler” is how it does not shy away from the ethical questions that other thrillers might. It is fascinating to watch as both Lou and Nina’s morals erode in the face of a potentially huge story. It is what you might call a zeitgeist film in the way it evokes a specific cultural time period. This movie is devastatingly effective because of its relevance and, like “The Social Network,” it is one of those time-capsule movies that people will probably look at hundreds of years from now as a vivid illustration of our current generation. Serious subject matter aside, “Nightcrawler” is an absolute blast to watch. I may have seen better films this year (“Boyhood” comes to mind), but this gripping, funny, and ingenious piece of work is my favorite movie of 2014 to date.