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D: Dan Gilroy / 117m

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Ann Cusack, Kevin Rahm, Kent Shocknek, Leah Fredkin

Louis “Lou” Bloom (Gyllenhaal) unemployed; to make ends meet he steals things and then sells them. When he sees a freelance film crew working at the scene of a car crash, he asks their boss, Joe Loder (Paxton) how they make a living from what they do. Loder tells him about selling the footage to the TV stations; this inspires Bloom to steal a racing bicycle and trade it for a radio scanner and a camcorder. Later that same night, Bloom gets in close at the scene of a carjacking and films the victim dying. This gets both Bloom and Loder moved on and they become rivals as a result. Bloom takes his footage to a local TV station where he meets morning news director Nina Romina (Russo) who not only buys the footage but encourages him as well.

Bloom hires an assistant, Rick Carey (Ahmed), and together they start visiting as many crime scenes as they can but even though Bloom has no compunction about manipulating the scenes to provide himself with better footage, Loder still beats him to several important stories. However, his work begins to be shown more and more, and he’s able to get better equipment. Knowing she can’t do without his footage, Bloom also blackmails Nina into having sex with him. When Loder beats him to a major plane crash story, it leads to Bloom sabotaging Loder’s van. When Loder crashes his van and is severely injured, it’s Bloom who gets the footage of his rival being loaded into an ambulance.

Later that night, Bloom and Carey arrive at the site of a home invasion. Leaving Carey outside to sound an alert when the police get there, Bloom sees the gunmen leaving and films them. Going inside the house he finds three dead bodies, all of whom he films. He gives Romina a copy that doesn’t include the gunmen, and the footage is shown, even though some of Nina’s colleagues feel it’s unethical. The police become involved and ask for Bloom’s footage but he gives them another edited version. Then, using the footage he’s held back, Bloom tracks down the gunmen and he and Carey follow them to a nearby restaurant. They tip off the police, but when they arrive, things don’t go quite as Bloom planned.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays an unscrupulous news cameraman in the thriller Nightcrawler

A mesmerising, audacious drama set against the backdrop of a Los Angeles that’s never looked so foreboding at night as it does here, Nightcrawler features a powerhouse performance from Gyllenhaal, and makes for a riveting viewing experience. It all hinges on writer/director Gilroy’s script, a fervid foray into the dark underbelly of daily news gathering that exposes the often desperate need for more and more “potent” material, and the betrayal of ethical concerns in the search for ratings. It’s a bravura piece, challenging and appalling in equal measure, and in the character of Louis Bloom, shows how little appreciation can be given to the feelings of others in the pursuit of fame (and presumably fortune).

Bloom is a grim-faced, skeletal-looking, fixed-eyed monster, oozing an unstable charm, flattering just enough to get his foot in the door, dismissive when someone can’t or won’t help him. He’s the upbeat loner whose interaction with others is continually designed to improve his lot in life, to make things better for him before anyone else. As charismatic as he seems, there’s a mania lurking close beneath the surface that serves as a warning to everyone around him. But Bloom is adept at reading others; he knows when and how to press their buttons, to manipulate them, or if necessary, threaten them into doing what he wants. And if threats don’t work, well, he’s not averse to making sure he still gets what he wants, anyway he can. He’s a ruthless, predatory menace.

As the amoral stringer, Gyllenhaal gives a super-charged performance that is easily his best yet, his gaunt physical appearance a perfect fit for the rapacious Bloom. Gyllenhaal makes him uncomfortable to watch, a creepy, unsettling presence wherever he goes, those big eyes of his hinting at madness and danger. Even when he’s silent he gives off a dispiriting air, as if even what he’s thinking (and no matter how banal) is somehow as poisonous to others as anything he could actually say. Gilroy has created one of the most defiantly unprincipled characters in movie history, and Gyllenhaal has seized his chance with undisguised relish. (It’s still a mystery that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for the role.) Working on what seems like nervous energy, Gyllenhaal paints a convincing portrait of a man willing to do anything in order to succeed, and whose sociopathy is frightening. In the aftermath of the police’s arrival at the restaurant, the true nature and extent of his emotional detachment is revealed – and Gyllenhaal makes it truly disturbing.

It’s one of many scenes that Gilroy artfully constructs that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat and which is anchored by Gyllenhaal’s impressive performance. As Bloom’s career blossoms, his amoral nature finds its mirror in Nina’s equally amoral disregard for conventional programming rules. In some ways she’s worse than Bloom, her lust for the material he provides as uncomfortable to watch as the ways in which he’ll procure it. When she sleeps with him the idea that she’s being blackmailed lacks currency; if anyone is being exploited it’s Bloom. Russo is superb in the role, giving ample expression to Nina’s vicious impropriety and matching Gyllenhaal for intensity. It’s been a long time since The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), and while she’s made a couple of interesting movies in the meantime, she’s not had a role that is as challenging as this one, and it’s great to see her inhabit the part with such fierce intelligence.

In presenting such a couple of despicable characters (made for each other but otherwise doomed to be alone), Gilroy has taken a considerable risk in making a movie without a sympathetic main character. But such is the awfulness of Bloom (and Nina’s) behaviour, and so complicit do we become as an audience, that we can’t take our eyes off them. In the same way that Bloom produces highly upsetting footage and Nina watches it with barely disguised impatience, Gilroy engineers things so that we too are drawn inexorably into a world we would otherwise avoid. Just how far will Bloom go? Will he film anything that Nina won’t be put off by? How much further can they take all this? All questions that the audience feels compelled to discover the answers to.

Nightcrawler - scene2

As well as his talented cast – Ahmed and Paxton provide sterling support as Bloom’s naïve employee and experienced rival respectively – Gilroy has surrounded himself with a pretty talented crew. Bringing his script to life, the movie is beautifully shot by DoP Robert Elswit, the night-time scenes having a luminosity to them that makes L.A. a character in itself. In the editor’s chair is Gilroy’s fraternal twin brother, John Gilroy, who has assembled the material with such care and attention to the movie’s emotional moods that each scene has a resonance that exists both alone and in conjunction with other scenes (and to add to the charges of nepotism he’s also Russo’s brother-in-law). And there’s a marvellously evocative score by James Newton Howard that subtly underpins the action without overwhelming it.

Rating: 9/10 – with a riveting, powerful performance from Gyllenhaal at its centre, Nightcrawler is a nightmarish journey into the heart of one man’s personal darkness; formidable and emotionally rigorous, it’s also a movie that rewards with each successive viewing, and stays in the mind long after it’s ended.