Jake Gyllenhaal has been off the radar for me since Brokeback Mountain and Zodiac. His recent films haven’t interested me until I saw the buzz for Nightcrawler. His recent publicity has been about his insane weight loss for the role. He said he dropped close to 20lbs because how he saw the character of Louis Bloom as hungry and not just for work or the news story, but also literally. With this in mind, I was intrigued to check this film out.
The film opens with Louis stealing metal for cash and punching a security guard for his watch. Instantly, we see how far this guy will go for a couple bucks, but as he gets his cash for the metal, he also asks for a job. The gall, right? He must be off his rocker if he thinks the man he’s selling stolen goods to is going to hire a thief. But he leaves with a smile, which is the first clue into this man’s mind. He never lets life get him down.
Thanks to Bill Paxton’s short and sparse role as Joe Loder, a newsman with a camera at crash sites, Louis is inspired to grab his own machine and be a competing “ambulance chaser” or “nightcrawler.” He buys a police scanner after selling a stolen bike and bends the rules more and more to get what he wants including running red lights, ignoring speed limits and even moving crash victims for a better shot. He bends the rules so much that we, as an audience, can’t tell if he’s flat out breaking them or just manipulating them.
The case in point is, after he gets his first camera, Louis finds himself face first to a ghastly site. Without any sense of social grace, he puts himself in the middle of the action getting the best and closest angle of a man dying therefore edging out the competition. He goes straight to a news channel where Nina, played by Rene Russo, does a ball-busting act with hair and make up that would rival the actresses of Dallas.
This is where we learn how tenacious this man is. He admits to Nina having no formal training or even much schooling, but his persistence and attention to detail overcompensates for that in ways that made me as an audience member quite uncomfortable. We also learn that privacy is dead. It is quite a well-written scene when he reveals that he knows everything there is to know about her based on a simple Google search, which in turn puts the whole film in perspective. There is no personal space, privacy, or boundaries when it comes to news. “If it bleeds, it leads.”
I do think Russo and Paxton are both wasted as actors. I’ve never been a huge Paxton fan, but when he is on the screen, he is highly recognizable. In this role, he was only a sleazier version of the tornado chaser in Twister–a man in a van, trying to push Louis away yet recruit him under his wing. But Louis has his own plans and his own bone to pick with Joe, which I won’t go into because of potential spoilers.
Russo plays the station channel director at the end of her contract, desperate to find that killer story that will save her network and her job. She confuses hope with a plan in Louis where it’s not 100% clear if she actually sleeps with him for a story. How low will any of these Los Angeles underbelly dwellers go to save themselves? The only somewhat redeeming character is the poor schmuck of an assistant Louis manages to recruit who is so blinded by the promise of pay, he goes wherever Louis does almost as a personal lapdog rather than cohort.
At one point, Louis says:
What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them? What if I was the kind of person who was obliged to hurt you for this? I mean physically. I think you’d have to believe afterward, if you could, that agreeing to participate and then backing out at the critical moment was a mistake. Because that’s what I’m telling you, as clearly as I can.
To me this makes me understand that Louis believes he is the smartest man he knows. But it’s when Louis gets the scoop of a lifetime, we see just how far he will go into the depths of filth to get his way and worm his way to the top in the most deplorable way possible.
Gyllenhaal was phenomenal in this piece riding the line between lunatic and genius doing whatever he can to take that next step. It wasn’t just the haunting Joker smile that was plastered on his face, but it was what he said and did through that wide grin that really makes your skin crawl from threats to moving bodies for a better camera angle.
I am very curious to know how this film fares in the Oscar race and if Gyllenhaal will be recognized for this transformative performance. He would definitely deserve some recognition for his talent in this satiric story of LA journalism.
4 out of 5 stars