The notion of Jake Gyllenhaal: Serious Actor might have seemed like a joke when he was making The Day After Tomorrow, but the range and depth of the performances he’s given in the last couple of years, especially, has made this a statement of fact. Whether as the trash-talking but warm-hearted cop in End of Watch, the constantly blinking detective in Prisoners, either of the shady doubles in Enemy, or as a modern-day Uriah Heep who hardly blinks at all in Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal has proven a chameleon. With each performance, he changes his posture, his rhythms of speech and movement, and he transforms completely.
His role as Anthony Swofford in Sam Mendes’s Jarhead was perhaps the first sign of this ability: his sardonic US Marine was so unlike the soulful misunderstood youths, both physically and emotionally, that he’d been mostly playing up to that point. But if you’ve been following his career since October Sky, which he made at just 18, the emotional depth of his performances should come as no surprise. It just seems to have taken some great directors – among them, Ang Lee, David Fincher, and Denis Villeneuve – to elicit this on-screen metamorphosis.
In writer-director Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, he’s lost weight to the point of gauntness, and as Lou Bloom, he prowls the streets at night like a hungry hunter. Lou has perfected the appearance of a wide-eyed, gee-gosh boy chasing after the American Dream, which is often very funny, though not to the people around him. In some ways, this is Gyllenhaal playing off his own image as the all-American-boy of October Sky or Donnie Darko.
Lou is glib, speaking quickly and precisely, in full sentences, never contracting words, and with diction that sounds like it could have come out of an old Leave it to Beaver episode; he describes the job he’s hiring for as “a fine opportunity for some lucky someone.” He’s also quite the Zelig, always just on the sidelines watching how others behave so he can imitate or manipulate them. In one scene, we see a cyclist coming down the Venice Beach Boardwalk, preparing to park his bike, before the camera swivels sideways to reveal Lou in sunglasses, sitting and watching. He ties back his greasy chin-length hair, and we cut to him at a pawn shop trying to sell the bike we just saw get parked; he takes on the guise of a competitive California cyclist quite convincingly.
And don’t think Lou isn’t aware of his handsome good looks, which he’s willing to exploit at every opportunity. In the words of Gyllenhaal’s ex-paramour Taylor Swift, “Darling, [he’s] a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” He’s so skilled at reeling people in, under the guise of an ingenue, before using everything he knows to gain power over them, to the point that it’s hard to believe it’s taken him this long, until his mid-30s, to find his true calling — especially since all it takes is some parasites hovering around a car crash scene to spark his interest. That’s hardly an anomaly in LA.
He’s a born nightcrawler, a freelancer who dashes around LA to capture nighttime footage of the latest violent and gruesome events — the kind of material that local TV news thrives on. When he brings in his first video to a bottom-of-the-barrel network, the editor Nina (Rene Russo) gives him some advice, in part because he looks like a lost dog in need of help, about what they’re looking for, saying he should aim for something like “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat slit.” A white woman, that is, and preferably in a good, rich neighbourhood. Anything that will let them use basic scare tactics about rising crime rate — a shooting in Compton, Nina assures us, is hardly news.
Most of the film takes place at night, and its texture is often gritty, although the film was shot digitally with the Arri Alexa. Lou rather quickly picks up the tricks of the trade, prompting his competitor Joe (Bill Paxton), to suggest they join forces, before explaining to Lou that real pros don’t bring in the footage they’re selling to the station themselves. Lou turns him down, hilariously explaining, “Working for myself is more in line with my skills and life goals.” But what Joe doesn’t know is that Lou has his reasons for taking his footage to the station directly: it’s an opportunity to observe the business, to figure out how he can become irreplaceable, and to court Nina, a beautiful and gutsy older woman. He’s nothing if not a quick learner.
There’s something suspicious about Lou’s naïveté from the start, in part because he’s often shot in the shadows, even during the daytime, and in part because his routine is so funny and creepy — not to those around him, but to the viewer. Gilroy repeatedly trains his camera on Gyllenhaal’s face in a tight closeup, shot jarringly from below, sometimes singling out just the eyes. With his gaunt physique, those eyes are eerily sunken, a window into a terrifying soul — not unlike Dan Stevens’s equally mesmerizing blue eyes in The Guest.
The film also has a dark, wry sense of humour. Lou can be so incredibly obsequious, when necessary, that it betrays something darker and grosser beneath, just like Uriah Heep from Dickens’s David Copperfield. As his business starts to take off, he hires a second in command, and he deliberately finds someone even more desperate than he is, the recently homeless Rick (a fine Riz Ahmed, believably downtrodden with no traces of Britishness). Lou plays the part of the affable and supportive boss – he even seems to have fooled himself – but he’s clearly in the business of exploiting others.
Lou’s blind pursuit of the most horrific footage – the stuff of dream ratings – and his increasingly adept manipulation of others reveal the psychopath beneath. The only thing left is for him to start precipitating the horrors that he needs for his livelihood. Trust me, I’m not spoiling this; it’s telegraphed from a mile away. And the way that Nina goes from being completely grossed out by Lou’s modest proposal – that she put out in exchange for continued priority access to his footage, which she needs to keep her job – to being won over by his abilities suggests, not even remotely subtly, the inherent depravity of the Local TV News business.
Does Nightcrawler have anything new or really important to say? No. Is it stylistically boundary-pushing? No. But it does give Rene Russo, in trashy dark eye shadow, the best part she’s had since The Thomas Crown Affair, playing a similarly brusque but sexy career-woman. It’s insane that it took her husband making a movie to get her out of Asgard. Most of all, Nightcrawler is a fine thriller and a great showcase for Gyllenhaal’s talent, wit, and comic timing. And as a bonus, we do get to see Gyllenhaal ironing his own shirt.