Movie Review: Nightcrawler (2014)



by Alan F. Zundel

“Nightcrawler” is one of those movies that is a vehicle for a talented actor to show his or her stuff in an unconventional role. Its attraction is a fascinating lead character; its shortcoming is that the lead character is an unpleasant person. I was torn watching this deciding if the experience was more on the fascinating side or the unpleasant side.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom is miles away from the role he is best known for, the sensitive gay cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain.” Bloom has no empathy for other people. We first see him stealing metal from an industrial lot near a railroad, and when he is accosted by a security guard he jumps the man to beat him and steal his watch.

After selling the metal to the foreman of a scrapyard, Bloom tries to sell himself to the man as a potential employee. His pitch is both obviously well-rehearsed and creepily obtuse in his belief that the foreman would consider hiring a thief. Bloom tries to disguise his financial desperation and social disconnection behind a mask of self-confidence, but with little success.

One night on the freeway he stops at the scene of an accident and watches as a TV crew arrives to capture footage. The metaphorical light bulb goes off over his head, and he is soon swapping a stolen bicycle for a video camera and a police scanner. He manages to capture some gory shots of an accident and sells it to Nina Romina, a TV news producer played by Rene Russo.

Bloom is coached by Romina in the business of TV news and shows himself a quick study who has absorbed principles of business success from the internet. He hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), to help navigate the car as they zip around L.A. at night pursuing police calls, and negotiates better terms with Romina, including reluctant sexual favors. He also begins crossing the line between recording scenes and staging scenes, which escalates into tragedy by the end of the movie.

“Nightcrawler” is a professionally made product all around. Cinematographer Robert Elswit captures the seedy beauty of Los Angeles at night in an opening montage that sets just the right tone. Writer/director Dan Gilroy makes the story realistically unnerving, and Gyllenhaal creates a memorable character. Rene Russo is equally watchable as a middle-aged TV producer whose fears about her waning career trump any ethical scruples.

But there is no one at the center of the story that you can like very much. The closest is Rick, Bloom’s assistant. Ahmed makes Rick sympathetic in his naïve hope that hard work for low pay will help him escape a near-homeless existence, a quality that Bloom takes advantage of to his own benefit. But we don’t see enough of the rest of Rick’s life, particularly any relationships with people who care about him, to become as invested in his fate as the story wants us to be.

The focus remains morbidly centers on Gyllenhaal’s Bloom, a man who becomes increasingly repellant as he becomes increasingly successful. This seems meant as a commentary on the ruthlessness of capitalism in this “entrepreneurial” economy of scraping for piecework jobs, but he is the wrong person to make the villain. Bloom is a victim and a product of larger social forces, yet the movie makes him responsible for what he has become. The message thus misfires.

I admired the skill of all the parties involved in making this movie, and the theme was timely and thought-provoking. The climactic scene of an impending police shootout with murderers is particularly effective and suspenseful. But I found it hard to become emotionally engaged with the characters.

Gyllenhaal is an impressive actor, and he proves it once again in this movie. But his transformation is external, from economic failure to success, not internal. He is a creepy guy to start with, and he only becomes creepier by the end.

Creeps can be fascinating, especially when their lives intersect with people who have to deal with them on a close basis. But I need some help either caring enough about them or enough about those other people to want to spend much time with them. Two hours was about enough for me. Your level of tolerance may be different.

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