Toronto Film Review: ‘Nightcrawler’

nightcrawler Jake Gyllenhaal

Jake Gyllenhaal climbs the walls as a nocturnal L.A. newshound. Some audiences may feel similarly inclined.

As a gonzo freelance news cameraman prowling for the goriest, grizzliest scoops he can find, Jake Gyllenhaal gives such a buggy, twitchy performance that — with his sunken cheeks, bulging eyes and greasy hair — he resembles some Cronenbergian mutant in an intermediate stage of transformation. He’s the main attraction in “Nightcrawler,” a cynical, sick-soul-of-Los-Angeles movie that announces itself as a “Medium Cool” or “Network” for the TMZ era, but doesn’t have much to say beyond the familiar, shopworn hand-wringing about shutterbugs willing to do anything to get the shot and the desensitized voyeur audience — us — that laps it all up. A flashy but hollow first directing gig for veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy (“The Bourne Legacy”), this Oct. 31 Open Road release is a star vehicle that will test audience enthusiasm for Gyllenhaal’s big, mannered star turn — a feast of capital-A acting that’s sometimes amusing to watch but not believable for so much as a second.

Very much a screenwriter’s movie in its habit of illustrating obvious points with self-impressed metaphors, “Nightcrawler” begins with Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom scraping by as a literal scavenger, selling stolen scrap metal for cash, before chancing into his new metier as a scavenger of human suffering, armed with a camcorder and police radio scanner. After a handful of amusingly botched first efforts (in which he turns his camera upon such mundane sights as a DUI breathalyzer test), quick-study Louis soon figures out that “if it bleeds, it leads” — words Gilroy can’t help from inserting into the mouth of an older, more seasoned cameraman (Bill Paxton, who also has the misfortune of having to declaim the movie’s title). Not long after that, Louis finds himself an eager ally in Nina (Rene Russo), the middle-aged news director at a last-place affiliate, whose overdone eye shadow and barely concealed desperation tell us she’s reached the last stop in a career of diminishing returns.

“Nightcrawler” goes on to trace a predictable trajectory in which, as Louis’ star rises, he becomes bolder and more reckless in his pursuits — not just of stories, but of Nina herself. Literal police lines and hazier ethical ones present no object, as this camcorder-wielding Weegee pushes his lens ever closer to the point of impact, be it a carjacking victim writhing in his death throes or the bullet-riddled family photos on a kitchen refrigerator. Viewers want to see “urban crime creeping into the suburbs,” Nina tells Louis before describing her ideal newscast as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat slit” — a variation on the Faye Dunaway character in “Network” pitching a reality show starring a band of SLA-style terrorists. Eventually hiring a rather hapless intern/navigator (Riz Ahmed) and trading his dumpy hatchback sedan for a turbo-charged Dodge Challenger, Louis so effectively cuts down on his response times that he begins beating the police to the scene. And, when that isn’t enough to give him his fix, he tries to get to the scene before the crime has even happened, to will the news itself into being.

Touches of apocalyptic comedy run throughout “Nightcrawler,” but the movie’s overriding tone is one of strident, finger-wagging self-seriousness. Gilroy seems to think he’s really blowing the lid off something here about the depths to which journalists will sink, and the gross manipulations of TV news. When Louis shifts a few items around at one crime scene to make for a more pleasing visual composition, we’re meant to be shocked; and when he does the same thing a while later — only, this time, with a human corpse as his set dressing — the grim laughter is supposed to catch in our throats. But both scenes are really just trumped-up versions of William Hurt’s post-produced crocodile tears in “Broadcast News,” and anything but shocking at a time when we’ve come to expect professional framing and lighting from even an ISIS beheading video.

Alarmingly gaunt and jittering like a finals student on a coffee-and-Dexatrim bender, all but barking at the moon, Gyllenhaal is undeniably committed to the role, but the character itself never feels like more than a collection of half-baked notions about underemployed young men with too much Web-surfing time on their hands. (Although we never learn much about who Louis is or where he comes from, it’s clear that his sociopathic tendencies have been aided and abetted by Google.) It doesn’t help that Gyllenhaal himself donned a far more nuanced — and frightening — version of this persona just two years ago in David Ayer’s superior “End of Watch,” as a video-obsessed cop who becomes a kind of megalomaniacal reality auteur. Whereas that character had an actual arc, Louis is such an obvious psycho from frame one that there’s nowhere left for him to go.

Working with regular Paul Thomas Anderson cinematographer Robert Elswit, Gilroy goes for all the iconic L.A. trappings: Venice Beach, the LAX flight path, oil derricks and palm trees swaying in rhythmic unison, and the fluorescent haze that hangs in the nighttime sky. A family affair, the pic counts Gilroy’s filmmaker brother Tony (“Michael Clayton”) among its producers, with editing by brother John Gilroy.

Toronto Film Review: 'Nightcrawler'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 5, 2014. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 117 MIN.

Production

An Open Road (in U.S.)/Elevation Pictures (in Canada) release presented with Bold Films. (International sales: Sierra/Affinity, Beverly Hills.) Produced by Michel Litvak, Jake Gyllenhaal, David Lancaster, Jennifer Fox, Tony Gilroy. Executive producers, Gary Michael Walters, Betsy Danbury.

Crew

Directed, written by Dan Gilroy. Camera (color, Arri Alexa digital), Robert Eldwit; editor, John Gilroy; music, James Newton Howard; music supervisors, Brian Ross, Nic Ratner; production designer, Kevin Kavanaugh; art director, Naaman Marshall; set decorator, Meg Everist; costume designer, Amy Wescott; sound (Datasat/Dolby Digital), Shawn Holden; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Scott Martin Gershin; re-recording mixers, Andy Koyama, Martyn Zub; visual effects, relevantVFX, Rain VFX, Artea; stunt coordinator, Mike Smith; associate producer, Juliana Guedes; assistant directors, David A. Ticotin, Richard L. Fox; second unit director, Mike Smith; second unit camera, Christopher Moseley; casting, Mindy Marin.

With

Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Kevin Rahm, Michael Hyatt, Ann Cusack.

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  1. Eric says:

    You don’t get it.You missed the point. It’s not a commentary on modern society. It has nothing to do with the salaciousness of the reporting industry. That’s just a frame for the actual story, the chosen industry. Paxton represents normal behavior in an industry, how any of us would behave at our jobs on a given day to day. Gyllenhaal, is the particular blend of ambitiousness and lack of empathy which tends to rise to the top in any (note the any) given industry. That’s the point of the movie. He succeeds at the end, and gets closer to his ultimate goal, which we are to believe he will reach given his character. You need to pay more attention to the scenes in which Gyllenhaal’s character sheds light on his internal decision making processes as well as scenes in which he negotiates for what he wants. In these scenes notice how he uses human emotion as nothing more than a mere bargaining chip. This movie is a snapshot (pun intended) into the mind of a sociopath, not an image of a given industry (pun also intended). I actually found it closer to an “American Psycho” than a “Network.” To me the difference between this and “American Psycho,” is that this film is probably a far more accurate portrayal of how people such as his character behave in society. Bale vs. Gyllenhaal is the difference between killing someone and allowing them to die while watching with curious amusement (which is depicted in one of the final scenes of the movie). A.P. is set in a sort of fantasy land, whereas this movie is more grounded in reality. Similarly, there aren’t too many murderous psychopaths running around in the shadows; however, people such as Gyllenhaal’s character are actually fairly abundant in the real world. You probably have several on the upper floor of where you work. That’s how they got there, and in their minds it is a prided skill set, whereas from an outside human perspective, it seems cold. That’s what this movie is meant to portray. You need to rewatch it. In a more general sense, you need to open up your mind a little bit as well. Next time at least attempt to remove your biases before writing another movie review which entirely misses the point.

  2. Lee says:

    Agree with this review, didn’t find anything particularly fascinating about the acting or storyline. Average movie at best, totally “Netflixflix” worthy.

  3. Mickey Mouse says:

    To state that the lead performance is not believable only betrays your own coddled ignorance of autism and aspergers.

  4. Jarrod Stewart says:

    You totally missed the entire point of why they made this movie to begin with. You seem to focus HEAVILY on the plot when this film is supposed to give viewers the perception of what a real life sociopath might look like day to day. It “creeps” up further and further as the film progresses and the plot (his job, Nina, his car, etc) is simply a medium to display the mind of a true sociopath. This film is not an action film, a drama film, or anything else like we’ve seen before. It is unique and a psychiatrist’ dream film.

  5. james says:

    How can you not love this movie? You gave this movie 50 out of 100 points and that explains you do not know anything about film. I mean what kind of movies do you like then. Have you seen all the crap movies out there? This film is a masterpiece on its own and when one compares it to the rest of the movies out there today its just an awesome movie all the tension and extremly good acting make this movie extraordinary…. good! You probebly are jealous please just quit your job then your opinion is so wrong and some people will even believe what you say about the movie.

  6. P.A. Small says:

    Most on point review of this film I’ve seen yet.

  7. dora says:

    explain me how you connected “end of watch” and this movie, beside the fact that same actor is in them? i mean, if we analyze meanings in these films, they deliver opposite massages. of course, if someone is not morally totally ignorant, and trying to sell the view to the audience

  8. Ivan says:

    Well you certainly got this one right. If twitching and a bug eyed frantic and vacant delivery is acting, then JakeG has this one sewn up.

  9. donjopi says:

    the review’s overriding tone is one of strident, finger-wagging self-seriousness.

  10. Variety sucks balls says:

    “we’re meant to be shocked”

    No. Don’t speak for “we”. You didn’t get this movie at all. And there is no overriding tone of self-seriousness.

    If you want to understand this movie you first need to realize that it is simply a success story about an ambitious & immoral millenial trying to achieve success in the world that has created him. A success story. Keep that in mind.

    This isn’t a cliched story where some innocent virgin arrives in the big city, learns the biz, struggles with his morals and by the end of the movie he is some sort of wise, jaded, immoral wolf. Bloom is immoral from the get-go.

    We don’t know Bloom’s past for a reason. Steve McQueen’s Shame did a simillar thing of not exploring the past of his sex addict protagonist since there are numerous reasons for sex addiction and he wanted his film to be a general portrayal of the sex addict struggle. Here we’re given a similar situation. We don’t need to know Bloom’s past because he represents the struggle of the young millenial, working class man of today. You see his ambition, you hear what he wants, his dreams and aspirations and then you see how every elder gatekeeper in the movie wants virtually nothing to with his future despite his eagerness. That’s all you need to know about him.

    And you should feel bad for him.

    He is a millenial whose world has made him realize that he will either have to be a little ruthless in his business methods or risk living in an unstable future like the character of Nina. Bloom is a bad guy trying to survive in a world that’s almost as bad as he is. He is the anti-hero.

    The scenes where Bloom is altering crime scenes weren’t meant to shock you. After watching everything else in the film leading up to them, only an idiot would have that notion of the film’s motives.

    In those scenes, you were instead supposed to be rooting for Bloom to get what he needs before the cops show up and stop him. They’re trying to stop him from achieving success! In thoses scenes Bloom’s pulling a heist. He’s going after the American Dream. He’s Daniel Plainview. He’s the next Ted Turner. The tension in this movie is the central question; can the underdog millenial succeed if he’s careful and vicious enough?

    Everytime a movie comes out with satirical elements and that movie isn’t Network, there will always be a critic who will complain that the movie indeed is not Network.

    Newsflash! Not every movie with satirical elements is trying to be a satire! The satire in Nightcrawler is only the backdrop for a story about an undergdog trying to succeed in business.

    Nightcrawler makes a strong statement about the American Dream. The same point that was made in There Will Be Blood and the same point that will probably be made in the upcoming A Most Violent Year, and as well as many other films dealing with the same theme.

    No one will give it to you. You have to take it.

  11. nadeshan says:

    a visceral outlook of a cutthroat businessman/person.

  12. Lily says:

    I beg your pardon, did you really state …’when we’ve come to expect professional framing and lighting from even a beheading video’. VILE VILE VILE!!! Does anyone else see the irony of this critics words juxtaposed with Nightcrawlers story line of societies declining moral fibre, among other things. I beg to differ ‘we’ve’ not come to expect such vile expectations, please speak for yourself. Let’s just hope the families of those beheaded don’t come across this article…Disgusting. see ya Variety… Won’t be back.

  13. Excuse me, but back in the day, when Peter Bart ran things, one could trust the critics at Variety. Te bylines were familiar and trustworthy. NOW: I’d like to know who the hell Scott Foundas is, and what amazing talent and ability qualifies him as the “Chief Film Critic.” Now, don’t get me wrong, he may be a very nice guy and truly is adequately schooled in filmmaking, but don’t throw a byline at me without any background, please. Duane Byrge, James Ullmer, (and the rest) where are you when we need you?

  14. Rex says:

    Fantastic review. Really nails everything I felt after seeing this.

  15. PETER says:

    Sounds good, can’t wait to see it. Jake’s the best. As far as the film making L.A. look like the pits? No film can make L.A. look worse than it is!

  16. shawn17 says:

    It was good – really good – but flawed
    Nightcrawler Movie – 8/10 – An Intense and Unique Noir film with an Oscar-worthy performance by Jake Gyllenhaal who channels his inner 70’s DeNiro to the best of his abilities. The cinematography in this film is bar-none and the capturing of the LA streets may be the BEST since Collateral. I personally think this film CAN age well, even with it’s many flaws. One of the most tense and amazingly done car chase sequences also in many years – but ALSO – the absolute worst soundtrack I have heard in a film in many years. There isn’t too many times when a film’s soundtrack can TAKE YOU OUT of a movie – but this was one of the most amateur instances of film “music” i have heard. All in All, Gyllenhall is one of the best and most talented actors working in the industry, and it’s refreshing to see an actor work outside of the studio system and PICK THE FILMS HE WANTS TO MAKE.

  17. Jessica says:

    Clearly the movie may hit too close to home for this guy. I for one believe news people love to exaggerate and will lie to get a story and make it more salacious. Exhibit A : TMZ

    • cc says:

      Right, because no one has EVER made a movie like this before! Ever!! This must be a huge wake up call for Scott Foundas who probably has never seen a movie featuring an opportunistic reporter before….. EVER!!

      • Sharpy McTongue says:

        And yes, I didn’t realize it was a movie designed to “blow the lid” on a contemporary subject matter! Scoff! Snort! Why do idiots bother even trying to make movies if it’s not something nobody has ever seen or heard of! How trite! Foundras is onto something so plugged in to today’s audience, that he once again breaks any critic’s wall of conversation between filmmaker, audience, and movie reviewer. It’s like he’s making mouth-art diarrhea instead of giving movie reviews. Scoff! Snort!

  18. Glenn C. says:

    Everyone thinks they are a Director. Oh well.

  19. AmbassadorZ says:

    This guy is an idiot.

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