Posted by Joel Copling on October 30, 2014

Few recent films have captured the unease of nighttime Los Angeles than writer/director Dan Gilroy's "Nightcrawler," a sleek but unnerving thriller starring as sick and depraved a protagonist as there ever has been. This individual is Louis Bloom, and Jake Gyllenhaal plays him in an insane performance that finds layer upon layer of depth within the single note on which he is performing. Louis is not right in the brain. The first time we see him, he is attempting to access a chain-link fence and assaulting a guard with a particularly nice wristwatch. The next time we see him, he is explaining to a store owner why he is the right man to hire, despite the man's objections to his obvious criminal history.

But it's while driving and happening upon a car wreck one evening when Louis realizes what his occupation must be: A "stringer" by the name of Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) and a one-man crew are on the scene first. This is inspiration for Louis, who scouts for jobs in this arena but ultimately takes it upon himself to do the work. It's challenging but, to him, rewarding work, and he's especially cut out for it in the psychological department, because not a thing seems to upset him. His first successful capture is that of a carjacking whose victim later died; Louis' blank stare even at the news that the man was returning from the pharmacy having purchased medicine for his ailing wife pretty much says all that needs to be said about this character.

Louis then becomes an entrepreneur--and expert (at least, according to him) negotiator--of an upsetting sort. He hires Rick (Riz Ahmed), who turns tricks on the street while shifting addresses constantly, to be his assistant and, later, executive vice president (The exchange during which this "promotion" occurs is a particularly telling one for both parties). Rick is the lone Greek chorus of genuine morality here (and even he takes part in Louis' particular brand of depravity). Louis' videos are sold to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the producer of a local news outlet, who doesn't let minutiae like lines of morality get in the way of what sells.

The film is at its thorniest during the first and second acts, during which we are allowed into Louis' psyche. It isn't a pretty place, as warped ideas of success are matched uneasily to dime-store ones that seem to come from a recital. Rick begins to feel pressure as the stakes mount and a collateral body count rises. A mid-film montage of their process is deeply fascinating, with Louis as the reckless driver and Rick his studious guide with the GPS on his cell phone. The third act becomes comparatively more familiar, inevitably honing in on a single crime (what appears to be a home invasion) but awarding already panic-stricken viewers with a nail-biting shootout and car chase so perfectly filmed by Gilroy and his hard-working cinematographer Robert Elswit (who captures L.A. as both alien and familiar) that the mind boggles.

But never you mind, reader, for "Nightcrawler" is as slick as they come--a armrest-gripping thriller, a thoughtful satire of where the current news media is as an entity (If you don't believe me, just take a gander at how news outlets handle crimes as they become developing stories), and a borderline-depraved study of the darkest recesses of human behavior. At the center is Gyllenhaal's towering portrayal of Louis Bloom (The actor supposedly dieted on a strange assortment of food that would deprive him of sleep, all the while shunning friends' requests to hang out; one can easily see the toll this behavior had on him), but it's not just a great performance--it's an embodiment of soul and mind. "Nightcrawler" would already be an experience without such a presence at its center, and with that presence, it touches greatness.

Film Information

Jake Gyllenhaal (Louis Bloom), Rene Russo (Nina Romina), Riz Ahmed (Rick), Bill Paxton (Joe Loder), Michael Hyatt (Det. Fronteiri).

Directed and written by Dan Gilroy.

Rated R (violence including graphic images).

117 minutes.

Released on October 31, 2014.