Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in the pulpy, dark noir “Nightcrawler” behaves like he belongs to another world, let alone another movie. He’s like a lost puppy who might just kill you, cluelessly getting in the way and causing trouble, or an alien just looking to acclimate into the seedy underground. Watching him slowly weasel his way into this world is comically cathartic and strange, and his performance recalls Travis Bickle as one of the better oddball anti-heroes the movies have seen.
“Nightcrawler” is a film of cold people acting well beneath their own morality and facades. It’s a critique on the modern day journalism that sensationalizes crime and explicit content in light of the people at its center, and Director and Writer Dan Gilroy stakes his claim on his creepy, near parody of a lead character.
Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, who we first meet stealing chain link fence from a construction site, only to sell it to a foreman. After making the sale he hardly pauses to ask for a job, launching into a scripted series of business school platitudes that’s so canned yet so strongly delivered that you’re not sure whether he believes it or doesn’t even know what he’s saying.
Gyllenhaal plays him with a raised voice and stilted, high shouldered poise that places him right on the edge of scary and normal. He’s turned into such a slimy good actor, darkly funny and of an almost inscrutable age with his slicked long hair and clean shaven face.
Things change for Lou when he comes across a Nightcrawler named Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a freelance videographer and ambulance chaser following police cars to crime scenes, grabbing footage and packaging it off to the highest bidder for the evening news.
Lou doesn’t know why he can’t do the same, pawning a cheap camcorder and police scanner and simply getting in the face of the police and victims. He doesn’t have press credentials, talent or a clue, and at first he gets into trouble, but he manages to sell his wares to a low rated news station and their news manager Nina (Rene Russo).
Soon Lou’s managing a homeless guy to help him navigate the streets to crime scenes, talking like a true manager with textbook leadership quotes seemingly ripped straight from the Internet. He starts getting ahead of the police and manipulating crime scenes in order to get a better shot, and you wonder whether he doesn’t care or truly doesn’t get it.
Lou’s hapless yet enthusiastic attitude is not much different from Travis Bickle, and you get the same feeling of loneliness and emotional trouble running through him. Instead of a porn theater, Lou takes Nina to a trashy Mexican restaurant and holds her and her news program for blackmail unless she agrees to sleep with him.
“Nightcrawler” walks the morally questionable line with ease, and yet it has fun with its characters and its scenarios, almost mocking them for the movie’s mostly small-scale stakes before condemning them on their dangerous, slippery slope. It builds from this neo-noir and social satire to a truly outrageous caper with a gripping, twisted ending.
The hidden magic of Gilroy’s film is that it doesn’t quite belong to a genre or theme, and yet it’s entertaining on its own terms. Much like its main character, “Nightcrawler” is quietly weird but perversely fun to watch.
3 ½ stars