If you had to describe Dan Gilroy’s first film Nightcrawler in one word, it would be sleazy. A contemporary take on the voyeuristic films of old like Psycho and Peeping Tom this brings the action to modern day Los Angeles, a city in decay where news networks vie for the most shocking footage available from freelancers called nightcrawlers. These people have cameras, cars and police scanners to listen in for fatal collisions, home break-ins and car jackings, they are at best morally suspect and in the case of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) morally bankrupt.
After a busy night stealing and selling metal gates, Lou finds himself at the roadside of a traffic collision and is surprised to meet Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) someone who makes his living recording crashes and crime scenes to sell to television news networks. Inspired he buys a cheap camera, hires an intern and starts his own business. His first footage is sold to Nina (Rene Russo), and from there he attempts more and more legally suspect behaviour in order to get the perfect shot even considering delving into crime himself.
Cut from the same cloth as other socially awkward characters like Norman Bates and Travis Bickle, Lou is the finest performance to date for Gyllenhaal. His twitching physical behaviour is only matched by his seeming overconfidence in conversation. A fast learner, his grasp of business speak and negotiating doesn’t worry about morals or annoyances like the truth as he ruthlessly goes after what he wants.
To think of the actor who played Donnie Darko and Datan in Prince of Persia slotting into this role would have seemed a stretch, but like Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight he seems like a perfect fit and it is this acting (with a capital A) performance that holds Nightcrawler together.
The opening scenes are packed with eerie tension and the cinematography, which is almost exclusively at night creates a brooding sense of decay in Los Angeles. The result is an overwhelming sense that at any second everything is going to go wrong for someone. What a shame then that Gilroy holds on to this tension for too long, which means that the final act comes too late and the audience already feel the drag of a story left on the boil for too long.
The idea of the media, as presented her, as ratings-grabbing lunatics may seem ridiculous to some, but the comments these are people created by the free market. If we consume the blood and guts of home invasions and car crashed then we empower them to continue doing whatever they can to get them. This appears to be one of the key points of understanding in the film, and while its heavy-handed and sensationalist in its approach it does at least stay true to its message all the way to the final frame.
Still with the tour de force performance of Gyllenhaal is engaging enough throughout. He is everything an aspiring, well anything should want to be. He’s confident, he wields information ruthlessly and his goal is success and nothing will stop him achieving it. The fact that he’s a completely bonkers sociopath doesn’t diminish his as much as it should. Like the footage he’s selling you can’t quite look away for fear of missing his next bold and unpredictable move forward.