Not becoming a franchise star might have been the best thing that ever happened to Jake Gyllenhaal. Back in 2010, the actor bulked and bronzed up to play the lead in Jerry Bruckheimer’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a big-budget adaptation of a video-game that was meant to be the first in a string of blockbusters. But the public steered clear, momentarily dashing any dreams Gyllenhaal might have had of seeing his face on millions of lunch boxes. The upside, however, was that he was liberated to become a serious actor again. And since then, he’s been dogged in his pursuit of challenging material: Source Code, Prisoners, Enemy. The results have been astonishing, even if the box office receipts have not. Now, in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, the 33-year-old has delivered what could be his best—and creepiest—performance to date.
Gyllenhaal is almost unrecognizable as Lou Bloom, a garrulous and more than slightly off L.A. fringe dweller who sells stolen scrap metal. The actor lost about 30 pounds for the role, but it’s unclear whether the script called for it or if Gyllenhaal just wanted to make us feel how morally hollow his character is, how he’s spiritually rotting away from the inside. He has a bug-eyed intensity that gives the movie its nervous, late-night tweaker energy. While driving home on the freeway, Lou spots a car on fire by the side of the road. He pulls over and watches a cameraman (Bill Paxton) film the police as they extract the injured driver from the twisted wreckage. Lou feels the rush of it. And his buzz is only heightened when he sees the footage on the news the next morning. He’s hooked on the excitement, the life-and-death thrill, the proximity to something newsworthy. He decides then and there to become a ”nightcrawler.”
The first half of the film chronicles Lou’s baptism into the profession—how he goes from an ambulance-chasing wannabe to a fearless camcorder-wielding Weegee. Gilroy’s ace cinematographer, Robert Elswit, makes L.A. feel like an abandoned neon-lit alien planet rife with lethal danger. Prowling the streets in the wee hours, with an ear cocked to a crackling police scanner, Lou and his naive, slightly dim assistant (Riz Ahmed) hightail it from one crime scene to the next, capturing bloody footage that they sell to Nina (Rene Russo), a producer working the graveyard shift at the city’s lowest-rated network. She’s desperate for the most sensational footage she can get. ”Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut,” she says. Lou’s video is close-up and gory and aimed squarely at the fears of the upscale white demo she courts. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to get the goods, even if that means withholding evidence from the police or moving the body at the scene of a car crash to stage a better shot. Like Gyllenhaal, Russo is dynamite in the film, though at times her overheated performance is a little too reminiscent of Faye Dunaway’s amoral news viper Diana Christensen in Network.
The comparison to Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s classic 1976 media satire isn’t an idle one. It’s been 38 years since Network howled from the window, warning us where our baser instincts were leading the medium of television. We’ve not only ignored that film’s doomsday prophecy, we’ve actually surrendered to the dark side. In its wickedly twisted way, Nightcrawler keeps Network‘s battle cry alive. It’s a 21st-century takedown of the media’s pandering ”if it bleeds, it leads” ethos and the ghoulish nightcrawlers who live by it. B+