By Britton Perelman, Staff Writer
(Two out of five stars)
Probably like many of you, I never questioned how local TV news stations acquired the footage played during their shows. Given that I study media, this seems ridiculous now, but I didn't give it much thought until I saw "Nightcrawler."
Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is unemployed and desperate for a job, any job, until, driving around Los Angeles one night, he comes across a car accident. More importantly, he comes across the man filming what's happening. He probes the guy, asking what exactly he does and if he's hiring. When he's turned down, he pawns a stolen bike for the money to buy camera equipment and a police scanner. Lou ventures into the seedy territory of "night crawling," selling footage of crimes and accidents to local news stations, and slowly loses himself in his new profession.
The premise of "Nightcrawler" was so promising: what happens when Lou begins altering crime scenes to create more compelling footage? Though the movie doesn't really pick up until about forty minutes in, the action and the plot keep the audience on the edge of their seats by the sheer thrill of it all. But the major pitfall of "Nightcrawler" is the fact that there is absolutely no backstory, no explanation about where Lou came from or why he is the way he is. He's a terrifying, kind of crazy guy, but we never even get a hint as to why. In fact, we don't even learn his name until we've already watched 20 minutes of the movie.
Despite the lack of explanation surrounding his character, Jake Gyllenhaal is scary good as a sociopath. He is in complete control of his portrayal of Lou, down to the number of times he is seen blinking - which is apparently only four times, though I'm not sure how accurate that is. Gyllenhaal is precise in every movement, every word, making sure that we grow more uneasy and uncomfortable with each thing he does. His strength as an actor is evident in how calculated his character is, almost as if he practiced being creepy in the mirror so he knew just how wide open his eyes needed to be, exactly how often to move his pupils, how to smile so slightly that it's unsettling. There is a terrifying scene when Lou actually loses it and smashes a mirror, the perfect example of Gyllenhaal's ability to channel the character he's playing.
The whole thing is this tragic, spine-tingling train wreck that you just can't bear to look away from. As Lou hires an assistant, builds his portfolio and crosses police lines to get the perfect shot, we are drawn in, seduced, as most people are in real life by sociopaths, with how charming and put together he seems. By the time we begin to question his actions, it's too late to stop watching.
Gyllenhaal's creepily accurate portrayal makes "Nightcrawler" compelling, but there's no takeaway, nothing to peg as - for lack of better terms - the moral of the story. There's a single line that could have been used as a thematic statement, something about how we need to all learn to be happy with what we have and what we don't, but it is rushed over and forgotten about as soon as Lou puts his foot on the gas pedal and drives to the scene of the next crime. We leave the theater feeling a bit like Lou's assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), horrified at the lengths Lou is willing to go to in order to achieve fame and wondering how he became that way in the first place.