I came away from Dan Gilroy's “Nightcrawler” with a new level of respect for Jake Gyllenhaal. He's been taking a lot of interesting chances lately, having already decorated his career with a string of notable filmmaker collaborations, but now he seems to really be pushing himself by exploring unique characters that might scare off most stars. The physical specificity of his “End of Watch” cop, the obsession of his “Prisoners” detective, and now, the blind ambition of his “Nightcrawler” psycho.
But he doesn't play this guy as “psychotic.” A driven creep looking for work and unsettlingly quick to learn and absorb, Lou Bloom finds his way into the world of freelance journalism on the night streets of Los Angeles in the film. He's never really given a big, broad outburst moment, but the drawn coil of the narrative leaves you expecting it, and that plays to the film's advantage. Gyllenhaal plays Bloom with an eerie sort of calm and control throughout. He's studied. He pays attention. And that makes him, ultimately, dangerous.
I thought it all came across as a better script than a film, though, because a consistent tone seems to be elusive for Gilroy. Score choices in particular (8-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard is the film's composer) began to clash for me as I wanted things to go darker quicker, I guess, but that's just me. I recognize that Gilroy – brother of “Bourne Legacy” and “Michael Clayton” helmer Tony, who produced – has serious chops. He builds a world here and populates it with intriguing characters (like Bill Paxton's cocky competitor). But he no doubt owes a debt to cinematographer Robert Elswit.
Not since “Heat,” “Collateral” and “Drive” have we seen this city captured at night with such striking detail. Elswit finds little Southland nooks and crannies worth showcasing, revealing the LA as a labyrinth of haves and have nots connected by snaking streaks of pavement. What's fascinating to me is that he achieves the look he does on film; digital has been the realm of this sort of night time clarity, but “Nightcrawler” speaks volumes to what's still possible on celluloid. (Note: Elswit also has “Inherent Vice” coming this year, another 35mm effort. Along with “Fury” and “Interstellar,” those appear to be the only film shoots in the hunt for Best Cinematography recognition this year, a bit of a milestone.)
I wish Open Road Films plenty of lucky insinuating this one into the Oscar race. And I'm glad they continue to take on films like this, “The Grey,” “Chef” and “Rosewater,” because clearly the studios aren't interested in what such product adds to their equations. But it won't be easy. This is a funky thriller battling awards bait and the Best Actor category is already loaded. I'd argue, though, that Rene Russo deserves a hard look as much as Gyllenhaal. Gilroy (her husband) draws a wounded, sexy, tenacious performance out of her, a reminder of what she's capable of. And in those scenes, the film really nails the fast-paced, decision-per-second world of broadcast journalism. That ought to help endear it to old school critics.
For more on all of this, check out Drew McWeeny's Toronto Film Festival review.
“Nightcrawler” opens Oct. 31.