Electrically overblown, wickedly funny, and mercilessly exact, Nightcrawler is a caustic portrait of an amoral opportunist who stumbles upon a horrible calling, playing like an entrepreneurial David Cronenberg crime thriller and unfurling into a ghoulish satire on journalism and the job market. With its pungent premise and potent performances powering it up, it curves and hisses its way inside your skull with demonic skill.

Lou Bloom, an unemployed nocturnal scavenger, captures the most gruesome mayhem on LA’s graveyard streets through freelance videography and sells to the highest bidder. His tenacity and manufactured poise catches the eye of Nina (Rene Russo), a past-her-prime news shark anxious for improved ratings. They form a poisonous and profitable relationship.

Nightcrawler’s chief pleasure is watching Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners, Enemy), who dropped 20 pounds to play the ambulance-chasing hack, portray someone who’s a spin-off of at least four iconic characters: Nosferatu, Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, Max Fischer from Rushmore, and Chuck Tatum, the unscrupulous reporter played by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s scabrous Ace in the Hole. Gyllenhaal, under-recognized for his convincing turns in Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain, and Zodiac, completes a career rejuvenation in Nightcrawler.

Bug-eyed and manically vulnerable, unhinged but precisely pitched, Lou is a magpie, a demented bottom-feeder, a neon-lit survivalist mauling his way across LA, the flip side of Ryan Gosling in Drive, playing the angles and filling space with empty words instead of soulful silences. Coiled and ready to spring, he’s as transfixing as a cobra in a snake charmer’s outfit, just as much a bloodsucker as Dracula. Suave, reptilian, and terrifying, he’s the MacGyver of masturbatory shut-in Googlers, raised in a cramped crawlspace on Robert Kiyosaki books. It’s adolescent solipsism gone grotesquely rancid.

With his emaciated frame and robotic enthusiasm, Lou is one of the most disturbing movie characters of the year, like a Wes Anderson character whose ambition has warped into a realm of violent sociopathy. The courageous and counterintuitive pairing of its leads – Russo is 60, Gyllenhaal is 33 – produces undeniable erotic chemistry. Nightcrawler has a sulphuric quality and sick sense of humour that mirrors the muted aquarium that Los Angeles becomes at night.

In his directorial debut, screenwriter Dan Gilroy executes his ideas with coolness, and Nightcrawler also has a caffeinated spirit worthy of its graveyard shift milieu, a darkness artfully breached by PTA-regular Robert Elswit (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood), perhaps the best cinematographer in the business. However, like his erratic protagonist, Gilroy doesn’t always know when to settle down: it’s a bit too outlandish and loathsome. The spell’s broken as soon as plot overtakes mood.

Half of the script sounds like it was gleaned from a self-help book; the other half sounds like the ramblings of a delusional narcissist in need of professional help. Some of the cleverest phrases are actually tired clichés (the decades-old adage “If it bleeds, it leads”), while others are browbeaten repetitively to the point of aggravation (“My motto is, ‘If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket’”).

Eager to shock but reluctant to reveal, Nightcrawler’s scolding tone runs counter to its pulp energy, as if Gilroy is instructing the audience to be alarmed by the things that turn them on. The film offers a familiar vision of today’s producers as misery peddlers, and callow ratings slaves bordering on the monstrous. Some clunky exposition and on-the-nose thematic monologues result in a rocky start, and it’s not wholly in control of its pay-off, Lou’s graceless and unnecessary face-off at a police station. No matter how much it strains to be Network meets The Silence of the Lambs, it’s never as effective as any of its many brilliant predecessors.

But Gyllenhaal’s wickedness prevails. Sleaze coats every frame of Nightcrawler, and some of it is deliriously thrilling. As much as it intends to be a takedown of the media’s pandering, “think-of-our-network-as-a-screaming-woman-running-down-the-street-with-her-throat-cut” ethos, the nauseating, vehicular lunacy is the versatile secret weapon. Full of evil that descends like a toxic cloud upon a tainted city, Nightcrawler is a tribute to the vile, a morbidly macabre carnival. It’s a skeezy, delectable little noir well worth a prowl.


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