Nightcrawler is one damn intriguing beast of a movie (and no, it has nothing to do with the X-Men regular. I apologize). For me, it was the highlight of this year’s Toronto Film Festival. A genre mashup that is one part media satire, one part stark character study of an unforgiving sociopath, and one part brooding thriller with a little action sprinkled in. Somehow despite combining all of those seemingly disparate elements and tones, debut director Dan Gilroy (who previously wrote a handful of blockbusters, including The Bourne Legacy which was directed by his brother Tony) creates a movie that feels like a distinct entity.
More than anything else, it’s a distressingly bleak satire with laughs that hurt, carving apart the sensationalistic “if it bleeds, it leads” approach to contemporary journalism. There are numerous movies that serve as obvious reference points for Gilroy like Network and Taxi Driver, but the movie it most resembles is Billy Wilder’s brilliant media satire Ace In The Hole starring Kurt Douglas as a small town news reporter who manipulates and extends a local tragedy purely for professional gain. Nightcrawler isn’t quite as accomplished as Ace In The Hole, yet its protagonist is even more chillingly corrupt in a way that reflects the current media landscape. Gilroy’s protagonist doesn’t even have the shred of humanity of Wilder’s, nor does he even need the skill of writing to succeed. All he needs is a video camera and the complete disregard for ethics and good taste to point it at the most horrendous images for profit.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as that near psychotic videographer. In early scenes, we see him stealing scrap metal and supplies for profits, while begging for jobs with a complete disregard for any sense of social grace. It’s clear almost instantly that Gyllenhaal is playing a total sociopath. He’s a man who doesn’t view anyone else as a person, but as a pawn to be manipulated into his career goals. He’s uneducated beyond an internet connection and a series of ridiculous self-help business books, but that’s all he needs to succeed. One day he stumbles upon Bill Paxton’s sleazy videographer who follows police scanners through late night Los Angeles to grab grisly footage of car accidents and crime scenes to sell to local news networks for profit. Gyllenhaal soon realizes this could be his ticket to fortune. So he buys a cheap video camera and cuts a deal with Rene Russo’s desperately corrupt station manager to start his business. Soon he’s doing well enough to buy a fast car and hire an “intern” (Riz Ahmed) to help beat the competition to the nastiest late night tragedies around. Yet, that’s not enough for the profit-minded Gyllenhaal. Soon he starts illegally breaking into crime scenes and even manipulating what he finds to ring extra cash out of the system. It’s pretty disgusting, but undeniably compelling and clearly things will only get worse before they get better.
When Nightcrawler works best is when Gilroy is working in the realm of nasty black comedy. The way he presents the morally bereft media more interested in ratings than rationality or integrity is absolutely hilarious. Yet, all the laughs Gilroy and his cast earn hurt and tend to get caught in your throat. You’ll giggle at how horribly these characters behave and speak, yet somewhere in the back of your mind it all registers as depressingly real and not exactly fun. That’s the thing about good satire. The momentary relief of laughter allows filmmakers to delve deeper into the darkness than they ever could in a straight drama. At times, Gilroy can get a little distractingly didactic in his moralizing, but thankfully that’s never too much of a problem thanks to the satire, which requires a little exaggeration. By the end, Gyllenhaal’s quest stops being funny and the film follows suit. Gilroy starts racking up suspense sequences that transform the experience into a dark thriller and even tosses in a few spectacular car chases that not only amp up the excitement in the third act, but somehow manage to serve then nastiness of the narrative rather than distracting from it. Nightcrawler might be a movie with very specific and prescient agenda about the contemporary media landscape, yet Gilroy never forgets that he’s working in an entertainment medium and delivers the message in a pretty pleasing package (in the darkest possible sense, of course).
Special notice also has to be singled out for Gyllenhaal, who delivers the finest performance of his career. Gyllenhaal has always been a talented actor, yet somehow seemed ill-fit to the leading man roles he’s been given despite his boyish charms. Some of that might have to do with his distinctly sunken eyes that always seem to suggest some sort of inner turmoil or psychosis regardless of how light and fluffy his role might be. Gilroy takes full advantage of those eyes here. Gyllenhaal’s performance is always chilling and frequently terrifying in how obsessed he is with professional gain and how he seems incapable of registering anyone around him as another human being. At first that aspect of the character is played for award laughs, then, as the film wears on, the character becomes genuinely frightening in his complete and utter disregard for human life. Gyllenhaal never flinches in his uncompromising portrayal and Gilroy matches him by refusing to redeem the character in any way. On a certain level, Nightcrawler is a monster movie, just one starring a very human monster the likes of which Scorsese and DeNiro used to delight in bringing him to the screen. Everyone surrounding Gyllenhaal is equally strong (especially Russo and Paxton who are both long overdue for career comebacks), but this is really his movie. He’s in almost every frame and when he’s not, it’s only so that other characters can talk about him. Gyllenhaal takes full advantage of that opportunity to delve deep into a disturbing role and fulfill the creep-out promise that he showed oh so long ago in Donnie Darko.
Make no mistake, there is nothing particularly pleasant about Nightcrawler. The Halloween release feels weirdly appropriate. This is far from a horror movie in any conventional definition of the genre. However, the themes that Gilroy explores and the character that he creates with Gyllenhaal are sure to haunt your mind long after Hollywood horror swill like Annabelle is forgotten. This is a vicious and nasty little social commentary and character study that gets away with its unrelenting bleakness through dark comedy, stinging suspense, thrilling action, and universally superb performances. It’s undoubtedly one of the best movies of the year, but whether or not that’s going to register when awards season rolls around remains to be seen. The depth and quality of Nightcrawler is undeniable, but since the filmmakers’ primary goal is to leave audiences gobsmacked and disturbed, it won’t exactly tickle Oscar voters into acceptance. Still for those viewers who are just sick enough to get the joke and don’t mind being infuriated by the ugliness of the world when they sit down in a darkened theater, there’s no denying the flick’s twisted delights. If nothing else, I can guarantee that you won’t see another movie like Nightcrawler again this year and unique movies are hard to come by these days. So it’s worth all the discomfort and fury involved in the viewing experience. Trust me.