Halloween moviegoers expecting a horror movie may feel misled by its title, but Nightcrawler is a first-rate film about a character who is as scary, in his own way, as Norman Bates or Freddy Kreuger. That’s because he’s not a make-believe monster but a guy who easily could (and possibly does) exist in real life.
Jake Gyllenhaal has been making a canny transition from leading man to character actor in such films as End of Watch and Prisoners. He adds to that rogue’s gallery with another superior performance as Louis Bloom. The opening scene of Nightcrawler establishes him as amoral and violent, a low-rent thief who lives alone and gets by doing whatever it takes to earn a buck. But he is no ordinary creep: he’s bright and agile, his conversation peppered with superficial truisms out of self-help books and business manuals. Quite by chance, he discovers that shooting video footage of mayhem on the streets of Los Angeles at night—be it a car crash, a fire, or a violent crime—is a way to make good money. He’s a quick learner and finds a ready buyer in an equally amoral local TV news director (Rene Russo). He hires a naïve assistant, scoops his competition, and adopts a scorched-earth policy on his path to success.
What makes Nightcrawler so potent is that while its tone is one of heightened reality, it’s frighteningly real…real enough to send shivers down your spine. I’ve met my share of creeps, and I’ve known producers like Russo who are more than ready to flush ethics down the toilet for the sake of a TV ratings point.
Screenwriter Dan Gilroy, making his directing debut, challenges us at every turn. We may be offended, even horrified, by some of Gyllenhaal’s and Russo’s behavior, but we’re also forced to question how anyone survives in a world where traditional ideas about work and success have eroded, or disappeared completely.
The film is further enhanced by the vivid tableaux of Los Angeles at night, perfectly captured by the brilliant cinematographer Robert Elswit.
One could position Nightcrawler as a social satire or a cautionary tale, but first and foremost it’s a thriller: a gripping drama that, in the context of modern times, belongs in theaters on Halloween weekend.
P.S. Lest you think that this subject matter is unique to the 21st century, check out a pre-Code Warner Bros. movie called Picture Snatcher (1933), in which James Cagney plays an ex-con who gets a newspaper job by worming his way into the home of a man who’s just died in a headline scandal—and stealing his wedding photo! His ultimate goal: to photograph an execution! The more things change…