“At 4am last night, a carjacking occurred at knifepoint on Olympic and Hanover. The victim is alive but in critical condition, and is currently being held at St. blah blah’s Hospital in…” While the morning newscaster continues her description of a thing that happened while we all were sleeping, we cut to grainy footage of a man on the sidewalk surrounded by paramedics, camera in voyeuristic zoom, lit by an eerie yellow glow. There were no reporters at the scene of the crime, and police are refusing to release additional information. So who was holding the camera? A nightcrawler.
Nightcrawler is one of those rare films which can take a premise you’ve probably never considered and turn it into a gripping narrative. It feels funny to call that kind of basic storytelling “rare”, but when you see it in action you can feel the difference. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an unemployed jack-of-all-trades who discovers the seedy world of amateur crime photojournalism and decides to give it a shot. This entails cruising a streetlamp-lit Los Angeles, camcorder in tow, ready to race across town the moment the police scanner signals a crime grisly enough to film. The premise alone could have made any straightforward procedural pretty strong, but here it’s just the backdrop for an insane character study. Bloom is a sociopath, willing to do absolutely anything to get his footage to the bloodthirsty media, and he’s played incredibly by Gyllenhaal. He doesn’t undergo a classic absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely “descent” into madness: he’s terrible from the very first scene. With violence juxtaposed against nostalgic imagery of the empty streets and an uplifting Lost-in-Translation style soundtrack, the whole thing becomes a twisted, unsettling rags-to-riches story. You hate the protagonist but somehow still want him to succeed, and that makes for a totally compelling experience — even if the final act sacrifices a bit of its edge for thrill.
I didn’t think it was a “brilliant satire of the media” like some are saying — but it’s the coolest L.A. has looked since Drive, and one of the strongest performances of the year.