Jake Gyllenhaal, best remembered for his roles in Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain, neither of which are exactly family entertainment, has recently gravitated toward edgier material.
He starred in two films by Denis Villeneuve last year: Prisoners, in which he played a police detective employing questionable methods, and Enemy, a surreal meditation on contemporary issues of identity. Now, in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, he furthers this trend with his best role yet.
The meddlesome media
When we first encounter Louis Bloom, he’s a petty thief trading stolen goods for small change. His life is changed by a chance encounter with a road accident – he watches as police and paramedics fight bravely to save the life of a woman trapped in a burning vehicle.
However, the woman is not his focus – instead he’s enthralled by a television news crew who unsympathetically thrust their cameras into the face of the victim, carelessly obstructing the rescue effort before openly celebrating their haul and speeding off to capture the next human tragedy.
Trading a stolen bicycle for a camcorder and a police radio, Louis wastes no time in beginning his new profession as a freelance video journalist. He sells his first footage to a struggling local TV station, where producer Nina (Russo) tells him to seek out news in white, affluent neighbourhoods: urban crime spilling out into the suburbs – the bloodier the better.
Satirical but sincere too
It soon becomes clear from Gyllenhaal’s captivating portrayal of this nervy, bug-eyed loner, who has a penchant for machine-gunning quotes from self-help manuals, that we’re watching damaged goods – a survival instinct mutated into sociopathic tendencies.
Is Bloom to blame for his lack of empathy, or is he merely the product of a society that enables this media machine’s insatiable appetite for death, misery and money? Could Bloom be the face of today’s American hero – the survivor who successfully plays an uncaring system at its own game, one which is designed to benefit the few by maintaining a hierarchy that suppresses the ambitions of the masses?
Bloom slowly transforms into a cold, crazed, merciless animal, operating outside the realms of morality and on the blurred border of legality. In one scene he arrives at another automobile accident before the police and quickly arranges a corpse to improve the composition of his shot. This may be satire, an occasionally funny one at that, but there’s no doubt about the sincerity of the film’s message.
Louis Bloom is an opportunist operating in America’s capitalist landscape and, as with Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, the system applauds his solipsism. The pale, gaunt, physically lean Gyllenhall appears as a vampire who roams the streets at night literally out for blood – a parasite that feeds off the misfortune of others without a flicker of remorse or empathy. Even the uninspired name of his enterprise – Video Production News – is tellingly impersonal and devoid of life.
A more mainstream film would demand that such a monster acknowledge the error of his ways before he’s crucified by the media machine that bore him. The conclusion of Nightcrawler is likely much closer to the truth. Dan Gilroy’s debut is a Citizen Kane for the 21st Century.
Dir: Dan Gilroy; USA, Drama/Thriller 2014, 118 mins; Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
Premiered October 30