There are no fanged vampires, voracious aliens or whispy ghosts populating “Nightcrawler,” but this is a horror movie nevertheless.
In this skin-crawling drama from first-time director Dan Gilroy (whose screenwriting credits include “The Fall” and “The Bourne Legacy”), the ever-changeable Jake Gyllenhaal gives what may be the year’s most disturbing performance as Louis Bloom, a dead-eyed loner/loser who discovers his calling capturing news footage of big-city mayhem.
You may want to bring your own hand sanitizer.
When we first see Louis he’s driving a crappy old Toyota and stealing copper tubing, chain link fences and manhole covers to sell to a metal recycler. It’s apparent from the beginning that he’s a b.s. artist who employs empty loquaciousness and a disarming smile to get out of tough spots. Then he stumbles across a late-night car accident and a pack of freelance cameramen recording the gruesome goings-on, and decides on a career change.
Soon Louis is the proud owner of a police scanner and a cheap video cam. A quick learner, he spends his nights bouncing from crime scene to highway carnage to house fire. Fearlessly barging in on horrible situations, he grabs if-it-bleeds-it-leads footage that impresses even seen-it-all Nina Romino (Rene Russo), news director of a struggling local TV station.
Nina has her own ideas about ideal news footage: “A screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”
In short order Louis has a flashy new car and a low-paid assistant, the homeless/hapless Rick (Rick Garcia), who serves as his navigator and second cameraman as the pair zap around Los Angeles, trying to beat the other news crews — and even the cops — to the crime scenes.
Louis makes up the rules as he goes along. He’s not above rearranging the body of a car crash victim for a more dramatic camera angle. He sabotages one of his competitors (Bill Paxton). He even blackmails Nina, forcing her to provide sexual favors to keep all that gloriously gory Louis Bloom footage in the pipeline.
And when our boy is the first at the scene of a fatal home invasion, he hatches his own plot to be there with his camera when the police close in on the perps.
Louis is a creep, but as played by Gyllenhaal (who in recent films has been pushing the envelope on dark characterizations) he’s an immensely watchable creep. The actor seems to have lost about 30 pounds — he looks gaunt and drawn. But the most startling transformation isn’t physical.
Louis Bloom is an immensely complex character. He’s scarily smart, with what may be a photographic memory. The stiff, formal way in which he interacts with other people — regurgitating lengthy rules of business management that he has gleaned from the Internet and tries to pass off as his own — suggests a mild case of autism.
Or maybe the guy is a sociopath. He’s an authoritarian and egoist who tries (unsuccessfully) to mask his icy interior with forced camaraderie. He seems to have made a study of how to ingratiate himself to others — but it comes off as forced and phony.
Though disturbing, “Nightcrawler” finds time for some very dark humor and visual beauty. Gilroy’s view of the city at night (the cinematography is by Robert Elswit of “There Will Be Blood” and “Magnolia” fame) is both enticing and frightening.
That local TV news is shallow and exploitative is hardly a revelation. But if you view Louis as the embodiment of unfettered capitalism — free of even basic ethical restraints or empathy for others — “Nightcrawler” becomes a wickedly nasty allegory about business run amock.
In short, an impressive directing debut. Can’t wait to see what Gilroy and Gyllenhaal do next.