Rated R for violence including graphic images, and for language
Nightcrawler is, without a doubt, one of the best movies of the year. It's a dark, chilling thriller about an aspiring video journalist whose new job only brings out his worst tendencies as a human being. Not only does it take a biting look at the culture of TV news, it's pulled together by an astounding performance by Jake Gyllenhaal that, in a perfect world, ought to finally push him from the B-list purgatory he's been stuck in to a genuine star. It's a film about a skin-crawlingly awful person, but if you're willing to see something that eagerly heads to some really dark places, you'll find yourself in for a phenomenal experience.
Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief in Los Angeles who steals chain-link fences, copper wiring, and manhole covers to sell for scrap, a "job" that doesn't pay nearly enough. One day, on the way home from "work" he stops to witness a pair of cameramen, led by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), hop out of a van and film police rescuing a woman from a fiery wreck on the highway. Asking about their job in the hope of getting some work for himself, he finds out that they're independent news contractors, people who head to the scenes of crimes or accidents and film the grisliest parts, selling the footage to the TV stations to use in their morning and evening newscasts. After being turned down, he decides to get into the business, buying a camera and a police scanner (with money from a stolen bicycle, natch) and hiring a young homeless man named Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant. As he gets increasingly involved in the business, he finds out how far he's willing to go for the perfect shot, the most news-worthy images, even if it means creating the news himself.
Lou is hardly your normal hero. In another film, he'd find himself conflicted between his ethics and the desire to make money, but here, he absolutely does not need to worry about ethics, because he has none. Jake Gyllenhaal plays him as extremely quirky, very analytical, quite possibly autistic, and most definitely a sociopath, willing to tamper with crime scenes, illegally enter property, and withhold certain evidence from police in order to both get a better shot and help Nina (Rene Russo), the news director at Channel 6, craft a better story that will draw in more viewers (and help Lou make money with follow-ups). Gyllenhaal is an utter sleazeball in the role, the sort of man who I'd never wish to spend more time with than I absolutely have to. Throughout the film, he constantly found new ways to make me say "oh good God" as he sank ever lower into treating his fellow men and women, at their worst possible hours, as little more than his next paychecks. That blank fucking stare as he worked his camera at ever-grislier accidents, carjackings, and home invasions made me hope I'm never a victim of crime, if only so that the last person I ever see isn't someone like him. You really have to feel sorry for Rick, trying to act as the voice of reason to this guy while knowing that he's being exploited for terrible pay.
Lou's a perfect match for Rene Russo's Nina, who's managed to put on a more socially-acceptable face than the utterly antisocial Lou but is arguably even worse than he is, as without people like her, Lou and his fellow nightcrawlers wouldn't be able to make money the way they do. Of course, we all know how Nina gets her pay -- even though crime rates in LA are going down, people still love to tune in to the morning and evening news and scare themselves into thinking that the "ghetto trash" are spreading into the nice, white suburbs of the Valley. News bureaus lowering their standards of journalistic integrity are just pandering to us, After all, if it bleeds, it leads.
It's in this satire, in Lou's descent into misanthropy, that the film's true horror slowly builds. Sure, we get our car chases and shootouts towards the end like the trailer promised, but they're just icing on the cake as Lou slowly turns into a chilling, amoral monster if he wasn't one already. It's a horror movie about a man who never actually kills people, but who swarms around the dead like a vulture, eventually coming to... I won't spoil. It's a slow burn, but the heat never stops building as you see just how far Lou is willing to go, and realize that it's people like you and me, those who demand the bloodiest scenes and the most hysterical reporting from our news, that enable people like Lou to do what they do.
Score: 5 out of 5
Network for the 21st century, Nightcrawler is an intense, satirical thriller that digs into your skin before ripping it clean off. And if there's any justice, Jake Gyllenhaal will be up for awards this winter.