Weirdo movies. They don’t always work, but when they do, they can be amazing. Taxi Driver. There Will Be Blood. The Master. King of Comedy. American Psycho. The genre has spawned a thousand thinkpieces about our fascination with sociopaths (at least four by Armond White), and what that says about the decline of civility in our society and blah blah blah, but they’re never going away. To watch a protagonist without guilt or personal boundaries is to vicariously experience total freedom from shame and social mores, and that’s always going to be a thrill. I mean f*ck pants, am I right? If anything, it’s probably a marker of a healthy society. Louis Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Nightcrawler, doesn’t go around murdering hookers with a chainsaw (not that there’s anything wrong with that), he just hits that classic, uncanny valley at the convergence between eagerness to be liked and total lack of empathy. And for all his resemblance to weirdos past, he’s also a thoroughly modern monster, a guy who can learn anything from the internet except context and empathy (timely!), the MacGyver of masturbatory shut-in Googlers. More bluntly, he’s mesmerizing.
Rene Russo’s news producer tells Bloom, “I want something people can’t turn away from,” though of course she’s also talking about Gyllenhaal. That’s Nightcrawler’s artsy hook, turning its audience into that trash TV viewer, secretly wanting to witness human carnage, but from a safe distance while you eat Cheetos and sh*t. The whole “holding a mirror up to society, maaan” thing has been done to death, of course, but for me, Nightcrawler is less an artistic achievement than it is a brilliant exercise in LOOK AT HIM ACT, LOOK AT HIM ACT!, wanting to follow Jake Gyllenhaal anywhere he goes, with his buggy left eye and bloodcurdling laugh, regurgitating Upworthy quotables like “a friend is a gift you give yourself.”
As you may have noticed in Prisoners, the man can play twitchy. And he has more than a little of Patrick Bateman’s tendency to memorize and rehash all the banal crap that he’s read. That’s an often underlooked component of sociopathy, actually, the tendency to categorize with no ability to synthesize. You see it in every fanboy freakout over alterations to canon.
Louis Bloom starts out as a nocturnal scrap metal thief who can’t even get hired at the metal yards he sells to, despite his relentlessly positive facade and arsenal of memorized negotiating tactics. He’s like this Oswald Cobblepot with Pat Riley hair, raised in a crawlspace on nothing but fish scraps and Robert Kiyosaki books. When you’ve got a character this good, you don’t need much of a story, but soon Bloom discovers the world of freelance videography, where his lack of boundaries and barely-disguised desire to dissect human beings to find out what feelings feel like is actually an asset. Turns out being a paparazzo is the perfect gig for a weirdo shut-in, who knew? Soon he’s climbing the career ladder, through a combination of moxie, disregard for the law, and sexual blackmail, the same way I scored this gig.
That Bloom is this monster created by self-help books, universal access to information, and the cult of the bootstrap billionaire could easily have turned this into an extended, self-flagellating harangue (see: the second half of I’m Still Here), but Dan Gilroy, in his directorial debut (he also wrote the script) is clever enough that Nightcrawler mostly feels like it’s playing with these ideas rather than lecturing you about them. It’s at least as much a dark comedy as it is a thriller, most transparently so in the names of each news segment Bloom files in his growing portfolio – “Horror In Echo Park,” “Drunk Mom Kills Biker,” “Toddler Stabbed.” Making fun of local news is always pretty hilarious but the amazing thing about Nightcrawler is that it does so believably, and set in 2014. Even Anchorman only worked as a period piece.
While the film’s all about Gyllenhaal, Gilroy does give him a few great foils to twitch at and careen into. In addition to the news producer played by Gilroy’s wife, Rene Russo, who nails the seen-it-all cynicism of a former big-haired talking head, there’s Bill Paxton, in full “You’re stewed, buttwad” mode as a rival videographer, and Riz Ahmed as Bloom’s first employee, who plays “inarticulate-but-genial SoCal guy” so well I can’t believe he’s actually British. Get him on “Inside Socal” stat, I need to know why Rigoberto’s stopped making the red salsa. Of course, the rest of the cast is mainly present to provide reaction shots for every new Gyllenhaal speech, scheme, or tirade, almost all of which are goddamned gems. There are few times I come out of a movie talking about the “performances,” but Jake Gyllenhaal’s epic weirdo is one for the ages. And I didn’t even have to pretend he was talking to his sandwich. Couldn’t hurt though.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.