Gilroy pulls out Gyllenhaal’s greatest performanceMovie Review, Section 4A Thursday, October 30th, 2014
Sites like Gawker, papers like the National Enquirer and stations like HLN give it some serious competition, but local television news is still arguably the crassest, most cynical and often least ethical news medium in the United States. This has been the case for decades, and “if it bleeds, it leads” has become a cliché in the news business. In the disturbingly bonkers and rather amazing new thriller Nightcrawler, Nina (Rene Russo), the producer of a low-rated early morning news show in Los Angeles, takes that cliché and goes long: “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” She’s telling this to Lewis Bloom, played by balls-out brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal, who is trying to break into the business of filming bloody breaking news for shows like Nina’s. These freelancers are called nightcrawlers, as they spend the nights wandering the city, waiting for their police scanners to announce a car crash or a murder that can be filmed and turned into the bleeding images that lead.
Lewis is not a heroic journalist, like Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men or Jane Craig in Broadcast News. He’s more akin to Diana Christensen in Network or Wayne Gale in Natural Born Killers, pathologically unethical and clearly amoral in his ambition to succeed, to beat his competition and win. He speaks almost entirely in the aphorisms of self-help books and online business classes, almost always with a broad smile and wide eyes. He’s solicitous and aggressive, and thus annoying in the way that bad salesmen can be. He’s also tightly gaunt, with a slightly off-kilter haircut. He’s the sort of man I’d cross the street to avoid.
At the beginning of the film, Lewis doesn’t even have the news on his radar; he’s trying to make money selling stolen scrap metal. When he’s driving back from an unpleasant sale – the scrap dealer was not charmed – he comes across a wreck on the highway. He gets out of his car to watch police officers try to save a driver, and a nightcrawler van drives up. Joe (Bill Paxton) responds to Lewis’ insistent questions about what he does and then drives off to another shoot. Lewis is inspired. He buys a camera and a police scanner and starts looking for mayhem to film. He takes his rough, first footage of a dying man being treated by paramedics to Nina, who buys it and encourages Lewis, even though he perplexes her.
Lewis’ shark-like determination leads to many sales to and sexual harassment of Nina, and he hires an intern to help him on the streets. Rick (Riz Ahmed) is desperate and not terribly bright, so he’s easy for Lewis to manipulate and use, and they become even more successful. But when they come across a mass murder in a mansion and Lewis films it before the cops arrive, events begin nearly to outpace even Lewis’ ambition. Lewis is smarter and more psychotic than I ever suspected, and the last 45 minutes of the film are thrillingly depraved. I was horrified and completely entertained.
This is the first film directed by Dan Gilroy, who wrote the lackluster Bourne Legacy and the cheesy Real Steel. This pedigree made it surprising that he not only pulls out Jake Gyllenhaal’s greatest performance but he also has given us the best thriller of the year. The two are inextricably connected, because it is Gyllenhaal’s unexpected actions and off-kilter affect that kept me on the edge of my seat and muttering “wow” over and over. Gilroy also handles the car chases and random violence on Los Angeles’ iconic streets with skill, evoking the L.A. noir of Drive and Heat. The film is disquieting and, even at its most fantastical, somewhat believable. Lewis may not exist, but the stories that he records for Nina’s broadcasts do. We’ve all seen them.
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