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Film Review: "Nightcrawler"

Night visions


Now that we've just about reached the midpoint of December, we're officially well into Oscar season. Around this time, studios occasionally decide to give their films another shot at box office success, expanding their most prestigious releases into more theaters so as to better capitalize on any potential Oscar buzz, or alternatively, to create some. "Nightcrawler" was first released nationwide at the end of October, but as it's factored significantly into end-of-the-year awards talk, the film's distributor has decided to re-open the film in several markets, including Rochester. So now's the perfect opportunity to catch up on one of the year's best films. Writer-director Dan Gilroy has crafted a dark thriller which uses genre elements to produce a twisted examination of our modern media age.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a petty thief we first meet stealing scrap metal to sell off to construction companies. Driving late one night, he runs across a grisly traffic accident. No sooner have the paramedics arrived to pull the body from the wreckage then a camera crew pulls up to shoot footage of the scene. Intrigued, he questions the lead cameraman (played by Bill Paxton), learning that they're freelance "nightcrawlers," chasing after graphic crime and accident footage to sell off to the local news. Bloom decides that that's something he might just be good at, and it pays better than selling scrap. He buys a cheap camcorder and a police scanner and goes into business for himself.

His natural ambition and self-serving nature make him a natural, and he earns himself a freelance gig for a low-rated local TV station whose ratings-hungry news director, Nina (Rene Russo) is desperate for sensationalized footage to goose her ratings. Nina offers encouragement (and a paycheck), and she's frank about what type of footage she's after: the more graphic, the better, playing upon suburban viewers' fear of urban crime creeping into their neighborhoods -- affluent white victims work best, because viewers aren't concerned about crime affecting minorities.

Gyllenhaal lost weight to portray Bloom, and his gaunt face makes his eyes appear abnormally large, as though he's adapted to a life spent mostly in the dark; Bloom looks like something you might find lurking underneath a rock. Dripping with a creepy, restrained malice, Gyllenhaal delivers a career best performance. A walking self-help book, Bloom is blessed with confidence to burn and the conviction of his words, all delivered with an unnervingly steady gaze. He eagerly devours everything he's learned, putting it all toward his sociopathic, tunnel-vision pursuit of the American dream.

Ever the opportunist, he ropes Rick (Riz Ahmed, "Four Lions") a young homeless man into becoming his assistant and sole employee. Preying on those around him, Bloom proves that he's most adept at convincing people to offer up exactly what he needs from them, and if that requires threatening people to get what he wants, so be it. Soon he begins subtly altering crime scenes in order to get the shot he wants, and manipulating circumstances to produce more violence so that he can capture it on film. Admittedly, as this goes on, the plot doesn't stay entirely within the bounds of reality; if Bloom actually interfered as much as he does, he'd run afoul of the law rather quickly. All the while, Nina's desperation makes her all too willing to sink to Lou's level (Russo is married to Gilroy, and it's a shame that it took appearing in her husband's film for the consistently underrated actress to receive the best role she's had in years). In its way, the film offers a critique of capitalist society and the way it necessitates the commodification of people; there's a sense (obviously exaggerated for maximum impact) that this behavior is exactly what's required to get ahead. With enough ambition and no morals, there's no limit to how much success you can achieve.

Screenwriter Dan Gilroy (brother of filmmaker Tony Gilroy, who's credited as producer here) makes an assured directorial debut. In less skilled hands, this material could have felt unbearably cynical (and to be fair, it nearly is), but the film has a wickedly macabre sense of humor and is so thrillingly staged that it's sublimely entertaining. Cinematographer Robert Elswit's gorgeous digital photography perfectly captures the lurid, fluorescent beauty of Los Angeles streets at night.