Jake Gyllenhaal has mostly played nice guys. His smile is big and warm, and he's played characters that were earnest and likable. That all changes with Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler, a sleek and intoxicating thriller that begs us to question what is shown on the evening news. It also contains Gyllenhaal's most terrifying performance of his career.
Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom wants to work. At the beginning of Nightcrawler, he's seen stealing pieces of chain link fence and manhole covers so he can sell them to a construction manager, but the man doesn't bite. Lou effortlessly negotiates with him, but he walks away with nothing. He stumbles on a crime scene, and Lou quickly purchases a cheap camera and police scanner.
The next time he hears about an accident, he runs out and grabs some low-grade footage. He sells it to Nina (Rene Russo), the director of a local television station. Nina applauds Lou's eye, and she tells him to come back when he captures something else worthwhile. Nina's station particularly showcases violent crimes, and that advisement sets the tone for what Lou will keep an eye out for. He hires a assistant named Rick (an earnest Rick Garcia) who is desperate to make money.
Lou Bloom isn't the kind of guy who is used to success, and Gyllenhaal infuses him with a greedy ambition that is absolutely unsettling. He teases Rick with a made up training program, and the way he negotiates with Nina over new footage becomes tense as time goes on. Towards the end of the film, Lou stumbles onto a home invasion and crosses the line before the police can ever arrive.
Gyllenhaal's performance succeeds mainly because he's played such lovable gents before. Normally, his characters are looking to do the right thing, but his smile in Nightcrawler seems tainted. Every time he grinned as Lou Bloom, I recoiled a bit. It might be the best performance of his career--Bloom is driven, calculated and sure of himself. Russo does not work as much as she should, so her presence on screen as an equally career-focused "woman of a certain age" balances nicely with Gyllenhaal.
Not only are the performances from Gyllenhaal and Russo strong, but the look of the film is striking. The majority of Nightcrawler is shrouded in darkness. Streetlamps seem to illuminate a lot of the outdoor action, and even the interior scenes feel devoid of sunlight. Any time it goes towards the light, the film appears to be on the verge of coloring yellow. It begins to burn like the pages of a well-worn true crime book.