Every year there are Oscar snubs. In 2017, you have Amy Adams and Taraji P. Henson and (I guess?) Deadpool. But I’m not concerned about any of those. This year’s snubs are, at best, medium-outrageous. Instead, I’m still fixated on the worst Oscar snub of 2015, because it also happens to be the worst snub of the ’10s.
Let’s start with this video.
Sorry, it still stings. There’s something you should know me: My second least-favorite film genre is “movies starring Eddie Redmayne.” But I’m biased — I think the guy who really deserved the Best Actor hardware wasn’t even nominated that year.
I refer to Jake Gyllenhaal, and his performance in Nightcrawler.
If you haven’t seen it: Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a creepy, sociopathic videographer who builds a thriving business in Los Angeles by unscrupulously filming car accidents and murders and, when necessary, sabotaging his competition. The film’s view of modern romance is as jaundiced as its perspective on the media — Bloom falls for Nina (Renee Russo), the news director of a low-rated local TV station, and coerces her into sleeping with him. And that’s just the first 45 minutes. The second hour of Nightcrawler is when things get really dark.
Nightcrawler was frequently compared with Network upon release in 2014 because it scans as a condemnation of amoral journalism in an era of declining ethics and escalating economic pressures. But I’d argue that it’s really about late-stage capitalism, and how millennials (in the media and elsewhere) are warped by an unforgiving marketplace. In Network, catering to the lowest common denominator was about mega corporations seizing power. In Nightcrawler, Louis centers on blood and guts because he’s a destitute bottom-feeder in search of his next meal.
At the start of Nightcrawler, Louis is a chipper (if vacant-looking and plainly desperate) go-getter who volunteers for unpaid internships at various businesses in exchange for experience, the standard “bargain” in the post-collegiate job market. Before long, after Louis has started his own business, he hires his own nominally compensated underling (Riz Ahmed), perpetuating a never-ending cycle of exploitation. (Meanwhile, Louis’ advances on Nina seem to be more about seizing away power from an authority figure than sexual gratification.)
“Night-crawling” is a term for the stringers who work at night and chase down down gory tragedies reported on the police scanner. But Gyllenhaal plays Louis as a literal worm trapped inside the body of a man — his pointy face; his unblinking eyes; his stringy, slicked-back hair; and that persistent, vacuous smile indicate a life form that is trying to pass as human but getting only 90 percent of the way there. When Louis speaks, he sounds like an alien who learned about people from listening to Tony Robbins audiobooks.
But Gyllenhaal has enough empathy for Bloom to make what should be a thoroughly unlikeable character a smidge sympathetic — at heart Louis is a guy who’s been dehumanized by the 21st century’s trickle-down economy. When the world dictates that one deserves no better than to live amid dirt and filth, the only choice is to keep on slithering forward, no matter the costs.
On paper, Nightcrawler should’ve been an awards-show slam-dunk for Gyllenhaal. It’s a showy performance, in the best possible sense. In interview after interview, Gyllenhaal spoke about how he lost 30 pounds for the role, and deprived himself of sleep during the shoot. This is Robert De Niro-in-Raging Bull level preparation, or the very least Matthew McConaughey-in-Dallas Buyers Club.
These types of actorly affectations usually bowl people over during awards season, and in Nightcrawler, they actually pay off in Gyllenhaal’s performance. Louis is a man on edge, starving with real hunger, which makes him capable of anything. The self-abuse adds extra oomph to Gyllenhaal’s already genuinely unnerving intensity.
Gyllenhaal has only been nominated once, for Best Supporting Actor in Brokeback Mountain, a film in which he was overshadowed by Heath Ledger. Since then, Gyllenhaal has at times seemed to court awards acceptance — he bulked up, Jake La Motta style, for Southpaw and he evoked sufficient pathos as a sad rich white man in search of redemption in Demolition. Most recently, Gyllenhaal emoted like crazy as a vengeful family man in Nocturnal Animals. But Academy voters opted instead for Gyllenhaal’s laconic foil, Michael Shannon.
Maybe the problem is that Gyllenhaal seems too eager. Gyllenhaal is generally regarded as an earnest worker, a guy who will show you exactly how much effort he’s putting in on screen. Leonardo DiCaprio is like that, too, but the typical DiCaprio character comes from a position of strength — the undercover cop, the eccentric billionaire, the sleazy Wall Street power broker, the mountain man who successfully seeks revenge. Gyllenhaal meanwhile plays broken men whose obsessions always seem to lead them to oblivion — hardly the sort of thing the Oscars normally go for.
Louis Bloom is the closest Gyllenhaal has yet come to playing a “strong” character, though the film is dubious regarding his ultimate victory. In a town where scraping for power and accolades is a way of life at this time of the year, perhaps Gyllenhaal’s repellent depiction of that behavior in Nightcrawler hit a little too close to home.