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Review: Jake Gyllenhaal is less sociopath than alien in 'Nightcrawler'

The black comedy offers a cynical but not wrong look at modern journalism and workaholicism.
nightcrawler

Jake Gyllenhaal drags his underpaid assistant (Riz Ahmed) around after hours Los AChuck Zlotnick, Open Road Films

‘Nightcrawler’
Director:
Dan Gilroy
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

Jake Gyllenhaal still boasts an open, boyish face, one his films occasionally try to tarnish with scraggly beards and neck tattoos. “Nightcrawler” is the first dark role he’s had that hasn’t tried to hide that. When his character is not gabbing, as he often does, his face is a blank. At first it seems he’s a tabula rasa. We quickly see the casual evil of which he’s capable, deeds that never cause him moral or ethical trouble. The way he toggles between empty stares and blabbermouthed “charm” when confronting his prey is reminiscent of no less than Scarlett Johnasson in “Under the Skin.” Both are playing aliens who skulk about the night, pretending to be human so they can profit off the species.
Admittedly, “Nightcrawler”’s antihero is far more benign. Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a Los Angelino thief and hustler who naturally finds himself drawn into the freelance journalism business. Hunting for a quick, hard-earned buck, he starts crashing crime scenes that happen in the middle of the night, armed with a tiny video camera he scored after selling a stolen bike. He has no experience in this world, and is clearly out of his depth when negotiating for prices with a desperate 6 a.m. News editor (Rene Russo, nimbly switching strength with self-pity). But having no scruples and no decency comes in handy for getting the close-up of a grisly accident that the professionals would deem uncouth. Luckily, Russo’s Nina, working for the lowest rated channel, needs viewers enough to ignore ethics altogether.
“Nightcrawler” isn’t subtle about taking the temperature of modern journalism, and by the end gets awfully cynical. This is mostly forgivable; it’s a black comedy, not a po-faced state of the union (or unnecessarily portentous like the forthcoming “Foxcatcher”). The words “If it bleeds it leads” are inevitably spoken, but there are plenty of better jokes. Bloom — who soon bandies about his catchy name like it was a brand — enters a world that’s already tainted, where his rivals (chiefly Bill Paxton’s grungy entrepreneur) fist-pump about scoring killer footage at unimaginably tragic car wrecks, as though they had just scored Lindsay Lohan snapshots. Bloom prides himself on being a fast learner, and indeed he needs no training to know you offer your Craigslist-found, sleeping-in-a-garage, worked-to-death assistant (Riz Ahmed) an internship.
It also comes from a strange place of empathy. It isn’t just showing a crazy guy with no morals, working himself to near death to get far in his field. It understands, to a point, the scrappiness required to make it in a tough business. Bloom is a workaholic who spends every waking moment — and he never appears to sleep — in a state of cat-like readiness. When he’s not actually working he’s educating himself. He has no personal life, because that would prevent him from the endless mad dashes required to stay afloat in his game. He dreams of bigger things, but they’re really just another level of scrapping and scraping. Bloom just takes it farther than most. He speaks almost entirely in business Successories gleaned from self-help tapes, and his only romantic connection — shown entirely off-screen — is negotiated via blackmail.
Gyllenhaal, his face gaunt and smeared with eyes whose sleeplessness only makes them more intense, plays him as someone who’s always performing, who’s never natural. A scene where he lays down a clearly heavily rehearsed ultimatum is like a kid pretending to be an adult. He’s a lunatic, and we’re supposed to laugh and wince, even as he winds up scarily good at his terrible, questionable job (which, in the film’s best unsaid joke, will only be devoured by people who get up around 5:30 in the morning). But we’re invited to find connections between what we do for our careers and what he does. After all, it’s not like Lou Bloom is nothing like us.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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