The Pitch: Smile. You’re on candid camera.
The Review: The mention of Los Angeles conjures up images of Hollywood Boulevard, the Hollywood sign, glamour and glitz, prosperity and affluence. That can mask the greed and grasping that much of Hollywood and Los Angeles are built on, but the films of the Los Angeles night, from LA Confidential and Chinatown to Collateral and Drive, have oozed with menace, the Mr Hyde to the daytime face of Dr Jekyll. It should be now surprise that low-lifes and seedy characters can thrive in an environment such as this, but in Nightcrawler we are presented with a character who’s trying to drag himself out of the gutter by feeding on the tragedy and depravity of that very environment. Jake Gyllenhaal is Leo Bloom, a waster who’s edging ever closer to middle age without ever finding his reason for life, but for whom a chance encounter with an accident late one night might be just the opportunity he’s looking for.
That opportunity is in the world of news media, and for Leo the chance to benefit from the misfortune of others not only says much that you need to know about him as a character, but also about the world in which someone like him can thrive. When Leo sees a private news crew taking footage of a freshly crashed car, he’s intrigued by the potential for how that can get recognition via one of the plethora of local news stations. The news director Nina (Rene Russo) believes that Leo has a natural eye, but he’s still needs to learn the tricks of the trade, and competition with existing crash chaser Joe (Bill Paxton) proves to be a quick learning curve. To help drive a competitive advantage, he takes on an interm (Riz Ahmed) to be able to exploit, before they both find out just what it will take to get to the top of the news business.
Nightcrawler is absolutely Gyllenhaal’s film: he inhabits every single frame, with a face chiselled from pure smug and a vocabulary regurgitated from a hundred bad management self-help manuals. He’s the David Brent version of Travis Bickle, trying to worm his way into whatever cracks into society he can with no thought for anyone but himself and Gyllenhaal’s performance means you can’t take your eyes off him for a second. I’ve seen other reviews that describe this as a career best performance – how quickly people forget Brokeback Mountain, Zodiac, Prisoners or even Source Code – but there’s nothing in his back catalogue quite like it, and everyone else is just fodder for Bloom to sleaze over and manipulate. The only one who puts up even the slightest resistance is Russo, but she’s working to her own agenda and serving as Bloom’s enabler is never likely to end well.
Nightcrawler also functions on the level of a thriller and a satire, and it’s fair to say that it’s better at the former than it is at the latter. Not least because it’s fascinated with, and keen to thoroughly explore, the minutest details of character and personality flaws but merely content to lay on the satire with a trowel. The view of the news world, of personal depravity feeding societal paranoia in a never-ending negative cycle, is in itself an enabler, so maybe the lack of subtlety can be excused. It’s the strength of the character study and the thriller elements that carry Dan Gilroy’s film, which exploits the darker edge of LA nightlife for all it’s worth, and perfectly mirroring the psyche of its protagonist. It’s also a clear demonstration that he should stick to directing his own scripts after an undistinguished screenwriting career ranging from Freejack to The Bourne Legacy. Nightcrawler might not be the subtlest tool in the box, but Gyllenhaal is mesmerising and worth the price of admission alone, helping to make Nightcrawler a guilty, trashy, thoroughly enjoyable cruise through the darker side of the City Of Angels.
Why see it at the cinema: Robert Elswit’s pristine cinematography makes the night scenes come alive, so don’t be afraid to watch them in the largest darkened room you can find.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong bloody crime scene detail, strong language. The most disturbing aspect might be that you can actually imagine these 15-rated images appearing on US news channels.
My cinema experience: Seen as the first film in a four film quadruple bill at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. Having parked out of town, my trek into the cinema was a lengthy walk, so I was glad of every minute of the twenty of adverts and trailers that Picturehouses are currently giving customers in front of their films. On the hottest first of November I can remember, it seemed a shame to be in the cinema, but for a Saturday lunchtime showing, an audience over half full proved I was far from the only person preferring the delights of the cinema over unseasonal sun.
The Score: 9/10