Nightcrawler may have you rooting for a charismatic sociopath
‘Nightcrawler’ is an excellent thriller with star Jake Gyllenhaal giving one of his best ever performances.
The concept of an anti-hero is a fascinating one. You can go to several extremes when constructing such a character. They can be your “Wolverine” types, loners with hearts of gold and a willingness to kill as necessary. Perhaps they could also be a vigilante fighting against a corrupt system. Or they might be a gangster who’s just not as bad as other gangsters. But it’s always curious why people are so willing to follow along and even empathize with people that seem like they would be villains in another movie. Sometimes it’s just that we see things from their perspective so it’s easy to find them interesting.
Nightcrawler comes from first time writer/director Dan Gilroy and stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom, an odd, intense small scale thief living in LA. He’s on the lookout for jobs with a brazen attitude aping self-help seminars but without any real people skills. But it’s luck that he stumbles across when he finds a guy, Joe (Bill Paxton), filming the aftermath of a gruesome automobile accident. Apparently, he discovers, news stations pay for gory and brutal firsthand footage of such things, accidents, crimes, and the like. And Lou has been looking for a job.
He learns quickly, and develops a weird but mutually beneficial relationship with Nina (Rene Russo) the nighttime news director of a local news show. Nina praises Lou’s first attempt, and that’s enough for him to discover his new passion in life. Soon he recruits Rick (Riz Ahmed), a desperate guy who is living out of a garage, paying him chump change for his help speeding his way through the streets of LA. They search for the juicy stuff; the crimes in nice neighborhoods so the news people can push their narratives of panic and terror. Rick seems like a nice guy, put off by Lou’s intensity and oddness, but he needs the work.
So it goes, but Lou gets increasingly riskier and more dangerous in his pursuit of the big leads, and the thrillride continues until the crazy, unexpected climax. For this is a movie about a sociopath, but one that can navigate the world. Lou (who is probably meant to be on the autistic spectrum) has difficulty reading people and reacts bizarrely over and over. He scares people. He will do crazy things to achieve his goals, things no regular person would ever dream of trying. At the center of this movie is the amazing performance of Jake Gyllenhaal as this monster in plain sight, and he is phenomenal. The story is relatively simple; it compresses time and is paced extremely well. We see the quick adaptation of this unbalanced person to the unbalanced world of local news.
So what’s the message? There is the not so subtle implication that a sociopath is the perfect person to work in the news, and although Lou may be the worst, he is still a white hot center of charismatic craziness. Nina is more than willing to compromise for ratings and Joe is just a bit less nuts than Lou. It’s an industry about scaring people, so it makes sense a terrifying person could succeed. Rene Russo was also great, of course, as the woman getting in a bit over her head, and Riz Ahmed provides a critical counterbalance of normality to really emphasize the oddness of Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance.
The movie is enormous fun, and it’s interesting to me how easily the audience can be manipulated into falling in line with the sociopath. Lou spouts a lot of things that seem perfectly logical, but that’s until you realize he thinks without empathy. He feels things, but they aren’t what you’d expect. So yes, I heard people applaud when Lou is victorious in one instance, and I just shook my head and wondered if Patrick Bateman from American Psycho had the same sort of reaction.
But when it all comes together in precisely the ridiculous way you both hope can’t happen and recognize as inevitable, the movie comes together as just an excellent thriller and a fantastic showcase for Jake Gyllenhaal. Yes, this may not be the most heroic character, but it’s definitely one of the most interesting ones of the year. It does get a bit gruesome and violent and times, with a few scary moments, but it’s a great one for the adults out there.