Monday, November 10, 2014

Nightcrawler: Crawling Under Your Skin

     Five years ago, if you heard Jake Gyllenhaal's name, you'd either think about his then-risky portrayal of gay cowboy Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain or his role as the freaky titular character in the teenage cult classic Donnie Darko. Like many actors, he was slowly gaining popularity and also had roles in some less-then-stellar efforts. But starting in 2011 with the slick sci-flick Source Code, Gyllenhaal has redefined his career and turned in some incredibly nuanced and haunting performances: his LAPD cop in End of Watch, his double-identity confused state in Enemy, and--most notably--his awesome turn as Detective Loki in last year's debatable best film, Prisoners. He continues his streak of impressive performances with Nightcrawler, a creepy and tension-packed film that is merely okay if not for Gyllenhall: but because of him it's almost great.
     Gyllenhaal portrays Lou Bloom, a scumbag sociopath weirdo who is trying to find a job. He doesn't have a set or morals or an ethical code, so when he witnesses the aftermath of a violent car wreck on an overpass and sees an independent camera crew filming the carnage to sell to the morning news, he comes up with the idea to start his own business. He buys a camera and a police scanner, and he methodically learns every police code for the city so he can zoom to dangerous crime scenes. Lou doesn't care about human beings or acting like a functioning citizen, so he gets good camera shots and fakes interviews. The morning news channel, led by Nina (Rene Russo: where has she been?), loves his footage and his go-get nature, and they start paying him more and more. And when sweeps week comes, they want more dramatic footage, and Lou isn't too concerned about how he is going to get it.
     Things escalate quickly in the second half of the film. I won't give away too much--but Lou isn't the type of person who abides by a few feet of yellow police tape that say "Do not Proceed." He hires an assistant, a down-on-his-luck dude who works for less than minimum wage and is frightened of Lou's personality, and they traverse the city searching for the most violent, shocking and exciting images to film. And like the images that Lou films, we--the viewer--keep diving down into depths of tension and excitement, wonder if Lou's downfall will ever come. Gyllenhall is not a likable person as Lou, but in the context of watching Nightcrawler, he's an extremely likable character for the viewer because he's so damn weird and interesting and will do anything for a better camera angle and more news recognition.
     Nightcrawler surely touches on the 24 hour news cycle and it's portents of immense fear: they pay far more for footage of violent crimes that take place in the white and wealthy neighborhoods. A carjacking in "the hood" doesn't equal ratings--a murder in a mansion does. This also ties into the exploitation of crime and victims in a world only looking for the next image to shock. But these metaphors aren't what sticks with you for the next couple days after Nightcrawler: it's Gyllenhaal as Lou, his gaunt features behind the hand-held camera, filming a bloody mess until he moves onto the next.     (B+)

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