This is without a doubt one of the most uncomfortable watches of 2014. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a freelance photojournalist who prowls the streets of Los Angeles at night looking for the most gruesome stories to film and sell to local news stations. Along the way he forces Nina, a local newscaster into an uncomfortable “business” arrangement and employs the unemployed Rick to help him capture the gruesome scenes. Both Rick and Nina meet Bloom when they are in their most desperate moments and become entangled in his escalating ambitions.
Over the course of his career, Jake Gyllenhaal has stood out for his odd characters. In Nightcrawler he has outdone himself in creating the disturbing and, for lack of a better word, creepy main character Lou Bloom, one of the unusual leads I have seen since Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle from 1976’s Taxi Driver. Dan Gilroy may not have crafted a Palme d’Or winner like Scorsese did almost forty years ago but he has managed to catch lightning in a bottle with Gyllenhaal’s performance, much like Scorsese did with De Niro.
Bickle lives in the post-Vietnam era of rapidly shifting cultural norms, even living in an election year when people tend to polarize. This is a backdrop for more sinister internal machinations, but the culture in which the film lives should not be disregarded. Like Bickle, Louis Bloom is both a product of his time and a timeless character. Bloom’s peculiar mannerisms and delusional behaviors could be blamed on the culture he so desires to infiltrate and dominate. Bloom is the poster child for a certain swelling argument. The argument that television, especially violent television, along with social media leaves its consumers unable to engage in normal conversations, an area where Bloom could certainly use improvement. Countless times we watch as Bloom engages with characters in a sterile demeanor, as if he is constantly referring to internal cue cards culled from his self-described hours of internet research. His outward persona feels like a cheesy TV ransom note, clipped from different magazines and newspapers, or rather internet pages and TV clips.
One line in particular demonstrates this habit. When a police officer asks Bloom when a major event in the film occurs, Bloom responds with “around approximately 12:38pm” a bundle of words that all seem to give an appropriate response to the detective’s prompt, but don’t really make sense together. The sentence is filled at once with redundancy and odd-fit. Bear with me. “Around” and “approximately” could both be used, but together feel odd, as if the speaker is attempting to play by the rules but like an inexperienced baker, adds two sticks of butter in a recipe calling for one. And 12:38pm is a ridiculously exact time to use with either “around” or “approximately,” let alone both in tandem. Now you might be thinking that I am overreaching and reading far too much into this three word line. But consider two things. One, to this point, Bloom has consistently demonstrated that he is extremely careful in choosing his words, not one to flinch when questioned by the police (in fact he routinely brushes past them to get footage). Any clip of Gyllenhaal’s performance is likely to demonstrate his calculating nature. Two, someone wrote those words in the real world. Either when drafting the script or maybe with on an on-set change, Dan Gilroy chose those words and I doubt they were chosen lightly, given the gravity of the scene. Sure it could be nothing. But I prefer to believe that Bloom’s character is one that learned to interact not by interacting but through “research.” Just as Bickle silently judged New Yorker’s through his taxi window.
Bloom’s behavioral oddities parallel Bickle’s. Both exchange awkward conversations and possess warped ideas of life, death and the utility of both. In Nightcrawler several characters, chiefly Nina (Rene Russo) and Rick (Riz Ahmed, who gives one of the film’s more enjoyable and under appreciated performances) comment on Bloom’s inability to interact normally. In an r on the New York Times website, Gyllenhaal explains that Rick is the “moral center of the whole movie” who is most aligned with the audience’s point of view. As the action progresses we see Bloom force Rick into increasingly uncomfortable and eventually dangerous situations, using the character selfishly while professing to have Rick’s best interest in mind. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that Bloom feels little connection with those around him, causing him to violate social boundaries and disregard the importance of his counterparts. This is of course a hallmark of Taxi Driver.
Both Bloom and Bickle undergo systematic desensitization. Every evening Bloom crawls the night looking for the most gruesome stories following the “if it bleeds it leads” mantra of local news. Bickle deals with the “scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit,” remarking that “each night when I return the cab to the garage, I have to clean the cum off the back seat. Some nights, I clean off the blood.” Whether or not the characters evolve into their delusional selves because of this desensitization or thrive in this harsh world because of their already present character flaws could be debated, but I contend it’s likely a mixture.
I could go on for pages about Nightcrawler and Taxi Driver, comparing Bickle and Bloom and the way they treat those around them. These interactions in Nightcrawler fascinate me although the relationships in Foxcatcher and Whiplash interest me a great deal more. Sadly, Gyllenhaal was squeezed out of the Oscar nominations for Best Actor this year in a cramped field featuring Foxcatcher‘s Steve Carell. Likewise Gilroy didn’t make the cut in a very deep Best Director field that also saw David Fincher shut out despite amazing work in Gone Girl, as well as Damien Chazelle who made his directorial debut with Whiplash.
Bottomline: Between Jake Gyllenhaal’s amazing performance and the mood Dan Gilroy’s creates in his directorial debut, Nightcrawler is without a doubt one of the best movies of 2015. Even if The Academy doesn’t agree.
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