“If you wanna win the lottery,” claims Lou Bloom, a gaunt and greasy Jake Gyllenhaal in Dan Gilroy crime drama Nightcrawler (2014), “you’ve gotta make the money to buy a ticket.” It’s a sly catchphrase that perfectly encapsulates the reptilian character that sits in the driver’s seat of Gilroy’s debut feature, which is screening at the Toronto Film Festival, weaned as he’s been on self-help videos and business acumen tutorials. In a world of foreclosure and economic downturn, the film is a broad swipe at sensationalist hack reporting that preys on public fear of urban crime creeping into the suburbs that never really goes any deeper than that. Fortunately it is stylish and blackly funny with a commanding central turn.
Gyllenhaal’s Lou is a down-and-out, first scene skulking the streets and stealing fencing and pipes for scrap. Uneducated, he’s trying to drag himself up and pitches for a job with a crocodile smile and soundbites from a thousand seminars on how to get ahead in business. When he one night happens upon a flaming road traffic accident and witnesses a couple of vultures arrive to film the devastation for the evening news, he thinks he may have found his calling. He pawns a stolen racing bike for a camcorder and a police frequency scanner and, with moral scruples let at the door, begins a mutually beneficial relationship with vampire shift TV editor, Nina (Rene Russo).”Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” Lou’s character is such that his first thought would be to take advantage
Nightcrawler feels a lot like a throwback nineties thriller set in Michael Mann’s LA but illuminated by flickering strip lights and sporting an additional layer of grime. At its centre, Gyllenhaal excels as twisted product of self-improvement culture – a grinning misanthropic shark devouring those around him and willing to go to any lengths to achieve his carefully arrived at goals. Though there’s a little morality in the form of Lou’s uncomprehending assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed) – the heart of the film to a large extent – his heartless boss embodies the lack of scruples about exploiting victims for ratings. Gilroy doesn’t let off the other characters either, with Nina equally culpable particularly once Lou begins to manipulate the news to suit his own needs. It makes for a damning indictment but one that would have been all the more interesting if it had attempted to examine the wider implications and ask why this horrifying local news is so successful. Despite that, Nightcrawler remains a pulsating drama constructed around Gyllenhaal’s transformative performance.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 4-14 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.