1. Why don't we talk about Jake Gyllenhaal more? This is an actor who
a) has made basically only two bad movies in the last 10 years (
Love and Other Drugs and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time);
b) was the star of what's going to go down as one of the best films of the first 20 years of the new century (Zodiac);
c) regularly takes strange, counterintuitive roles, often playing obsessive, antisocial weirdos who are dangerously close to cracking up at any minute (Prisoners, Enemy, Jarhead); and
d) can convincingly go Action Star if he needs to (Source Code, Jarhead, End of Watch).
I know it's easy to make fun of Prince of Persia and its Lego ostrich rides, and I know there are still people who confuse Gyllenhaal with Tobey Maguire. But seriously: This is one of our very best actors, valiantly out there searching for that one perfect role. He may have found it.
2. Nightcrawler isn't a perfect movie, not by any stretch, but it's without question the role that will coax you on the Gyllenhaal bandwagon if you weren't there already. He plays Louis Bloom, a petty thief/con man who seems to never sleep and spends almost every second of his day online, desperately and single-mindedly trying to find whatever plan he can for self-betterment. He finds it when he discovers the secret subculture of "nightcrawlers," basically freelance guys with cameras who listen to police scanners and run to scenes of accidents/crimes to take disturbing footage and then sell it to local news stations. Because he's essentially a cold-blooded remorseless psychotic, Bloom takes to this job immediately, hooking up with a ratings-starved local TV producer (Rene Russo), where they both raise the stakes to increasingly horrifying levels.
3. On one hand, this is writer/director Dan Gilroy's polemic about news culture, about the whole "if it bleeds, it leads" mindset. (Unfortunately, Gilroy actually has one of his characters say this exact line.) As a satire of the news media, it's fairly weak, all told; that news producers are insensitive, amoral ratings monsters wasn't really that shocking when Network exposed them nearly 40 years ago. It's particularly strange because it's so out-of-step with the way the news business works now; these nightcrawlers might have been a big deal five years ago, but in an age of Twitter, everyone's a nightcrawler, all the time. Gilroy is claiming that news media often care less about actual news and instead more about stories that will get them the most eyeballs, and I congratulate Gilroy on this staggering epiphany.
4. Fortunately, Gyllenhaal just burns through all that. He's riveting every single second of the film, gaunt, ghoulish, and insanely intense, his eyeballs bulging with sociopathic ambition. The reason his character succeeds is because he is willing to do anything, seeing other humans as mere obstacles in his path to greatness and self-actualization. Gilroy might not have much new to say about media, but I love how he turns Gyllenhaal's ambition, and his cold cruelty in following it, into a quiet critique of unfettered capitalism itself.
Lou, through all his online research, has begun to parrot the world of entrepreneurialism and its embrace of "growth opportunities" and "maximizing my self-worth and potential." The secret joke of Lou is that once he decides to embrace this new job and his ability to thrive at it, the rest of the world becomes pointless except as something to be destroyed en route to his self-actualization. He is the logical conclusion of an "every man for himself" philosophy. Lou keeps giving speeches to his (barely paid) assistant about improving his longterm opportunities in the global marketplace, and you know that if he hadn't chosen this field, he could have been a huge hit in boardrooms across the country ... before cutting your throat, literally and figuratively, when it benefited him most.
5. And Gyllenhaal holds this all together with his ghoulish, haunted performance. He appears to have had his skin pulled a little too tightly, and he's jumpy and nervy and souless and utterly terrifying in every way. (I found Gyllenhaal far scarier in this movie than anything in any Saw sequel.) He digs down deep into this guy, and never looks for a way out; his performance is uncompromising and utterly committed. I know to many, he's still just Donnie Darko, or Maggie's brother, or the other guy from Brokeback Mountain, or Taylor Swift's ex-boyfriend, or the guy you think played Spider-Man but actually didn't. But that boyishness is starting to fade, and in its place, we are discovering one of our fiercest, most daring actors. After Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal won't be underestimated any longer.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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