Gyllenhaal Shines Brightly in “Nightcrawler”

By Bill Hanna Contributor 

“If it bleeds, it leads.”

This little pearl of wisdom proves to be extremely important to Louis “Lou” Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the main character in “Nightcrawler,” an absolutely riveting new film about the sleazy world of freelance TV journalism in Los Angeles. This is far and away the best movie I have seen in a long time, and even if some may not be all that interested in the subject matter, it’s worth seeing just for Gyllenhaal’s magnificent performance.

When we first meet Lou, he’s attempting to eke out a living by stealing scrap metal from construction sites and selling it by the pound, but this certainly is less than lucrative. One evening Lou happens upon a car accident, and when he stops to see what is going on, he sees a guy with a video camera. The fellow’s name is Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), and when Lou inquires about what he’s doing, Joe explains that he’s filming footage to sell to TV news stations. And when Lou expresses his surprise that Joe makes money doing this, Joe drops the “If it bleeds, it leads” line on him.

And the seed has been planted for Lou’s career.

Lou goes out and purchases a cheap camcorder and a police scanner and begins trying to compete with Joe, but in the beginning, he’s not very successful because Joe consistently beats him to the news scene. Then Lou hires an assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed), and things begin improving for him. Louis takes his first piece of footage to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director of the TV stations with the lowest ratings in Los Angeles.

When Lou first walks into the station and meets Nina for the first time, she asks him who he is, and Lou replies, “I’m looking for a job. In fact I’ve made up my mind to find a career that I can learn and grow into. Who am I? I’m a hard worker. I set high goals, and I’ve been told that I’m persistent. And I’m thinking television news might just be something I love as well as something I want to be good at.”

While they are talking about a job, Lou asks Nina what kind of footage she wants for her shows, and she says, “Think of our newscasts as a woman running down the street screaming with her throat cut.”

Nina ultimately ends up hiring Lou, and their ensuing relationship is bizarrely interesting to say the least. Despite the fact that the sexual attraction between them is undeniably electric, first-time director Dan Gilroy eschewed including a sex scene in the film, choosing instead to leave what Lou and Nina do behind closed doors to the imagination. But we do know something is going on because at one point Nina asks Lou what he wants, and he replies, “And the last thing I want Nina is for you to do the things that I ask you to do when we’re alone together at your apartment not like the last time.”

As the film progresses, Lou becomes quite skilled at capturing the gruesome details of accidents and murders on film, and one of the major questions the movie poses is just how graphic should TV news shows be. And Lou hits the jackpot when he beats the police to the scene of a triple homicide in wealthy neighborhood, but what he sees and films there may end up costing him his life.

Part crime drama, part mystery, part thriller, and part character study “Nightcrawler” offers a fascinating look inside the business of freelance TV journalism, and I found it absolutely riveting from beginning to end. When I think of the truly memorable characters I’ve encountered in films, I list among them Norman Bates from “Psycho,” Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs,” George Bailey from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Forrest Gump from the film of the same name, Margo Channing and Eve Harrington both from “All About Eve,” Andy Dufresne from “The Shawshank Redemption,” Col. Nathan R. Jessup from “A Few Good Men,” Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver,” Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and Lt. Col Frank Slade from “Scent of a Woman.” Of course there are more, but the point is that now Lou Bloom joins all those on the list.

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Lou is an extremely complex character in that some of his behavior qualifies him as a sociopath, but he has another quality that makes him quite likeable. I know that sounds ridiculously contradictory, but to make the point a bit clearer, here is the way Gyllenhaal analyzed his character in several online interviews.

“I loved that he was a product of today and that he could not really exist in any other time because his personality was developed from the Internet. It wasn’t like a personality developed from interaction with other human beings. It was like a personality developed from interaction with a computer. And it was fascinating to me. It was just a fascinating beautifully written character.

“It’s important that you feel like Lou is the superhero of a generation. People have asked me throughout many interviews over time: ‘Do you ever wish you’d played a superhero?’ I just did – his name is Lou Bloom. Lou is a winner. He’s ethic-free in an industry with a rapacious appetite for tragedy. He’s a liar and a manipulator. An irrepressible dreamer who swallows the self-help formula whole. He abuses his employee, Rick, and terrorizes his station boss. Yet there is a sweetness to him. Lou is insidious and corrupting, amoral and relentless. He is the perfect product of our times. I don’t like to call him a sociopath. The reason he doesn’t become unwatchable is because there’s this great innocence to him.”

It’s a testament to Gyllenhaal’s incredible acting talent that he can give Lou such depth and complexity. One minute you think Lou should be placed in a mental institution, and the next you are applauding his success and marveling at his ingenuity.

Matching Gyllenhaal’s effectiveness in his part is Russo as the driven news director who realizes how important Lou can be for her station’s ratings despite his quirkiness. The two of them work beautifully in establishing a strangely compatible working relationship. In an online interview Russo offered some interesting insight into the two characters.

“I know some people think I’m more of a villain than he is, and I might have to say that maybe he is a little more innocent. I mean he grew up in a time where the job market is bleak, and he is a product of our society that likes to see that, and all you need is one tiny little screw loose and suddenly you’re Lou Bloom. You know and like there’s a Lou Bloom and Nina Romina in all of us.”

Keeping in mind that we are just now moving into the season when Hollywood releases its heavy hitters, I will say that “Nightcrawler” is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. It’s beautifully directed, superbly photographed, and brilliantly acted. It also boasts incredibly effective dialogue, and it offers a veritable smorgasbord of food for thought. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that it earns the final score of a highly enthusiastic 10. After you have met Lou and Nina, you’ll never again watch a TV newscast in quite the same way.