Watching Jake Gyllenhaal as the earnestly amoral Lou Bloom, you’re immediately drawn to his eyes, almost perpetually wide. Gyllenhaal’s subtle yet transparently surface level mannerisms are a huge part of his performance here, but there’s special emphasis on how cartoonishly doe-like his eyes become as Bloom bullshits his way in and out of a series of bad situations. Noticeably, he wears sunglasses in his few daytime appearances, like a vampire. Bloom’s eyes are a weapon, the source of the power he wields over those unfortunate enough to be around him. Nightcrawler, a directorial debut for screenwriter Dan Gilroy, is a combination character study, media satire, and stylish neo-noir.
The eternally typecast Gyllenhaal, free to play a real nasty piece of work, shines here as the unsettlingly work-hungry petty criminal Bloom. After selling a construction foreman some pilfered fence materials, Lou Bloom appeals to him for a job in an obviously canned speech.
Excuse me, sir. I’m looking for a job. In fact, I’ve made my mind up to find a career that I can learn and grow into. Who am I? I’m a hard worker, I set high goals, and I’ve been told that I’m persistent. Now I’m not fooling myself, sir. Having been raised with the self-esteem movement so popular in schools, I used to expect my needs to be considered. But I know that today’s work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations.
When the foreman, wisely, tells him he isn’t “hiring a fucking thief,” Bloom responds with a weird “ah well can’t win ‘em all” sort of sheepishness that implies zero introspection. We hear versions of this practiced spiel again as the movie goes on and Bloom realizes his dream job: videotaping the pain and misery of others for local TV news. Outside of this, Bloom has no interests, no hobbies, no loved ones. He sits in his small apartment alone, watering his plant and watching the news. Bloom has nothing, save for his job, which he proves willing to kill to keep.
One of Nightcrawler’s more intriguing elements is how it retrofits standard noir thriller desperation to reflect modern day anxieties of the unemployed. Even beyond Bloom, nearly every major character in the film is worried about not having a job or losing their job. For example, Bloom’s scratchy voiced assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) is essentially homeless and willing to work for $30 a night, and Bloom’s news director connection Nina (Rene Russo) is on the verge of losing her job if she can’t boost morning ratings. Nightcrawler recognizes, even beyond the money it brings, how important “work” is as a function of human identity. We watch as Bloom metamorphosizes from unscrupulous job seeker to unscrupulous self-employed “job creator.” Despite not caring about his professional qualifications beyond having access to a smartphone, Bloom almost sadistically forces Rick go through the motions of a job interview because, well, that’s what employers do, right?
Even as we watch Bloom commit increasingly darker transgressions, from crime scene manipulation to withholding valuable evidence from police to premeditated murder, we only really begin to understand exactly what kind of monster he is after he pressures Nina into going out on a “date” with him at a Mexican restaurant. Since Bloom is incapable in seeing human beings outside the concept of “work,” in his mind Nina is a natural fit to be his girlfriend. After she politely rejects his advances, Bloom lists her employment track record and how important his footage is to her job stability in order to coerce her into a sexual relationship. What sells the scene is that Gyllenhaal does all this as he scarfs down a plate of nachos, as if it were the most natural conversation in the world.
Russo’s performance as Nina, as well as Bill Paxton’s turn as a rival veteran “nightcrawler,” are understated but crucial supporting roles. Paxton’s signature scumminess is pitch perfect here, and Russo gives Nina an effortless weariness she discards instantly when praising or screaming at Bloom for delivering/not delivering the footage she craves. Both characters are mentors of sorts for Bloom, teaching him the finer points of catching ratings-grabbing video of gruesome traffic accidents or wealthy home invasions.
While ultimately the film’s satirical bent feels like it takes a backseat to character focus, Nightcrawler has moments of laser-precision sharpness. “The news is like a screaming woman, running down the street with her throat cut” explains Nina, after advising Bloom that the kind of footage that sells best involves bad things happening to upper-class whites in nice neighborhoods. Bloom and other nightcrawlers swarm to crime scenes like flies, their presence upsetting frightened bystanders and interfering with police and medical personnel efforts. Director Gilroy sets up his accident scenes with just the right kind of ambiguous tension and unease, taking his time before showing us the blood-soaked victims of whatever calamity Bloom has stumbled into that night.
More Wolf of Wall Street than Chinatown, the uneasy conclusion of Nightcrawler carries a strange inevitability to it in the way the best endings do. Bloom, having gone from a small cog to a victorious master manipulator of the police-news media chain, dispenses his empty self-help guru platitudes to a group of “interns.” “Remember. I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” he reminds them before they head out into the darkness in a small fleet of vans, looking to feed off the misery of others.
Nightcrawler is now playing in theaters nationwide.