When we first meet the scavenging Lou Bloom, it’s clear that he’s an opportunist. He steals anything – copper tubing, swaths of aluminum fence, manhole covers (“the nice thick ones”) – and sells what he’s stolen to a construction foreman. Then he fights the foreman over the price, and then he asks the foreman for a job. So Lou’s mentality isn’t so much “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, but more “I have no lemons, so I’ll take yours”. This is the strongest aspect of Lou Bloom’s character, and indeed at times it’s overwhelmingly strong. Jake Gyllenhaal and writer/director Dan Gilroy don’t nail everything in Nightcrawler, but they nail that.
There’s a definite stylishness to Nightcrawler that aims to capture the seedy neon after-hours of downtown Los Angeles and the surrounding, more affluent suburbs. Lou graduates from scavenging to a real (ahem, “real”) job when he happens upon a highway car accident one evening: crime scene photography, he learns, can be a lucrative business. “If it bleeds, it leads,” says Bill Paxton’s mentor-photographer in a very trailer-suitable explanatory monologue. So Lou buys a camcorder and a police scanner and begins working. He’s all about opportunity, so when it knocks Lou answers. Opportunity, of course, keeps knocking, and Lou keeps answering. Soon he’s creating his own opportunities, which means everyone except Lou is about to get their lemons jacked.
Gyllenhaal is on a tear lately, hot off Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners and Enemy and far enough removed from Prince of Persia that it’s evident he’d prefer smaller indie-feel projects like the former. Nightcrawler feels small at first, but it also succumbs to a tendency to overreach in certain arenas in an attempt to become more grandiose, more thematically universal and all-encompassing – for lack of a better word, “bigger”. We’ll get to that in a second, but Gyllenhaal’s devotion deserves first mention. Lou Bloom isn’t a guy you’re likely to forget anytime soon. Rail-thin, greasy, and straight-up creepy, Lou is the perfect depiction of what his mantra demands: he slithers into crime scenes unnoticed, feeds and rests only when convenient, smarms and gladhands anyone who could someday provide him some benefit. Gyllenhaal lost twenty pounds for the role, but he embodies Lou in more effective ways than simply the weight loss. There are times when his eyes are as dead and indiscriminate as the eye of his camera, simply taking in the bloody horror before him without any of the symptomatic effects of viewing such trauma.
The overall aesthetic of Nightcrawler mirrors this carved-out look of the protagonist; the film certainly succeeds in capturing L.A. both by day and by night, from the tacky Venice Beach storefronts to the long driveways of the “white” mansions, but it falters elsewhere. Again, it’s the overreaching that reveals Nightcrawler to be a debut effort from established writer Gilroy (a crackling debut by any account, but most definitely a debut). Certain lines detract from Lou’s character by pulling him out of his stylish little niche and forcing him into that aforementioned “universality” – for instance, when he explains that his problem isn’t that he can’t relate to people but just that he doesn’t like them very much. This feels out of place, because we’ve already been to this territory with a hundred weird loners in a hundred other films. Some of the music, actually, ends up doing the same thing – lilting, heartfelt strings while Lou recites stuff like this seem totally at odds with the grungy, sweaty, hungry L.A. to which we’ve become accustomed.
These qualms eventually fall by the wayside. Nightcrawler has a phenomenal third act, shedding pretty much everything to focus on a major case in which Lou has become entwined. It’s lacking, maybe, in character development. But it’s fireworks, plain and simple, and it really is a hell of a ride. Gyllenhaal’s performance is the beginning, middle and end of the movie, and it’s undoubtedly impressive. Any buzz he gets in the upcoming Oscar race is well-deserved, and though it looks to be a great year for the Best Actor competition it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Gyllenhaal in the thick of it. Lou Bloom doesn’t really seem like an Oscar role, just like Nightcrawler doesn’t seem like an Oscar movie, but that’s a good thing. Nightcrawler is best when it’s not trying to be too large, when it flies under the radar, when it slips like Lou into someplace it’s definitely not supposed to be.