Well, let’s start with the synopsis: Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a sociopath, a disturbed young man driven to succeed in a world completely ignorant of him. He is the dark, seedier embodiment of the American Dream. He will gain fame and wealth and success at any cost- indeed, as a sociopath, he has no empathy for anyone else, no sense of others worth other than as stepping stones to his own success. Stumbling upon a freelance film crew recording a car crash to sell the footage to a news network, Lou finds himself ideally suited to the work as he feels no discomfort witnessing brutal bloody crime scenes or the carnage of accidents. Neither does he feel any guilt or shame profiteering from the pain and misery of crime and accident victims. Indeed, to the contrary he thrives as he muscles into the dangerous realm of nightcrawling, surfing the police radio frequencies for situations where someone’s misery can be turned into his own profit. Selling his footage to an ailing news network led by career-threatened Nina (Rene Russo), Lou’s search for ever-more sensational footage leads him to cross the line into interfering with crime scenes and actively becoming a participant in what he films, finally engineering a crime scene that threatens the lives of public and police for the ultimate windfall.
Nightcrawler is a remarkable film. Part thriller, part social commentary, and I guess part dark satire, it is set almost entirely in night-time LA, a beautifully filmed nightmarish urban landscape. Indeed, has LA at night ever looked so beautiful? The central performance of Gyllenhaal is riveting, a madman who is unlikeable but utterly fascinating. His descent into darkness and resultant success is terrible to behold. We feel invested in his success at the start, as if his social awkwardness and underdog status makes him the nominal hero, but as he leaves a trail of misery and broken lives behind him we begin to realise we are rooting for some kind of maniac. Lou feels nothing for anyone, manipulating everyone to his own ends, as free using his footage to gain sexual favours as he is asking for thousands of dollars, as if it’s all the same to him. He is living what to him is the American Dream, while for us its clearly an American nightmare.
Gyllenhaal is charming and terrifying in equal measure, Lou quite completely unaware that he is a monster- it’s a performance that seems so effortless and natural that it is rather extraordinary. Even if the film itself were tosh, his performance is worth the price of admission alone, but thankfully the film itself is equal to his performance. Direction, editing, photography, all are up to the task. It isn’t pleasant; even when its funny its making you squirm at what you are smiling at, and it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth at the end. Are we all voyeurs? Are we complicit in Lou’s success? It’s a very dark and disturbing film. In that regard, it’s also possibly the nearest I’ve seen a modern film come to the seminal Taxi Driver. Nightcrawler is one of the best films I have seen this year.