This is a movie about a man learning the power of the recorded image made by a man learning the power of the recorded image. Screenwriter Dan Gilroy has never directed a film before. Yet, watching his feature debut, one gets the uncanny sense of a natural auteur figuring it all out, instinctively deducing how a masterpiece is made.
And, have no doubt, that's exactly what Nightcrawler is. It's a seat-gluingly suspenseful, chillingly visionary cultural commentary in film form, as perfect for its time as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy were for theirs. As if that weren't enough, it's built around the most hypnotic performance given by an actor this year.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, an LA loner whose profile lies somewhere on a spectrum between Asperger's and sociopathy. We first encounter him cutting through a chain-link fence in the dead of night. We assume he's trying to get into or out of somewhere, but that's not what's happening. He's stealing the fence — which, along with copper wire and manhole covers, he unloads on a shady construction foreman.
The capper to the sequence offers the first hint that something is profoundly askew with Lou. After negotiating a price, he smiles, asks the foreman for a job and is surprised when he answers, "I'm not hiring a fucking thief." In Bloom's universe, the reptilian grin, the self-improvement jargon he's picked up on the internet and his manic work ethic are what matter. The fact that he's committing a crime isn't even on his moral radar. Well, it wouldn't be if he had moral radar.
As anyone with basic cable knows, though, there are places where a creature this soulless is not only welcome but rewarded. Lou finds his life's calling on the drive home, when he happens upon a fiery car wreck and a freelance reporting team thrusting their cameras as deep as they can into the carnage. Bill Paxton is dead on as the head of the crew, a grayer, sleazier version of the tornado chaser he played in Twister — a cheeky touch on Gilroy's part.
Nightcrawler tracks Lou's entry into and unstoppable rise to the top of this grisly milieu. It delivers a virtual sermon on the depths to which TV news has sunk without so much as a single preachy line. Everything that needs to be said about the ethical bankruptcy of the medium is conveyed through the relationship Lou develops with a down-on-her-luck news director (Rene Russo). She's desperate to lift her station from last place and happy to pay top dollar for Lou's bottom-feeding footage.
Russo has never been better. In one of the picture's bravura scenes, her character, Nina, feeds her anchors prompts through their earpieces as they broadcast Lou's video footage of a blood-drenched crime scene he reached ahead of the police. "Whoever did this is at large," she cues them, barely able to contain herself. "Hit that again. Keep hitting it!" If it bleeds, it leads is old news. Fear, the film reminds us, is what drives ratings in post-9/11 America.
All of which may prove a little too creepy and lurid for the Academy, and if that's the case, it's a shame. As far as I'm concerned, awards season just kicked off. From the camerawork by Robert Elswit — who makes the LA nightscape into one of the movie's main characters — to Lou's innovative dialogue, to Gilroy's freakishly accomplished first-time direction, to Gyllenhaal's De Niro-esque shapeshifting, this is an Oscar-caliber jawdropper. It's a cool, crazy indictment of media voyeurism from which you'll be powerless to look away.