(Dan Gilroy, 2014)
Instantly announcing itself as one of the great Los Angeles films, Nightcrawler does so many things so well. It is a gripping, utterly atmospheric thriller. It features the best performance of Jake Gyllenhal's career. It says some scary, hilarious things about the way the current US Economic situation demands a certain amorality and even creates and rewards sociopaths. And it looks absolutely beautiful.
That is mainly down to veteran cinematographer Robert Elswit, who together with debutant director Dan Gilroy (brother of Tony) depicts L.A. as we rarely see it; street-level, devoid of cliches, an exciting, living, beautiful sprawl of a city, pulsing with colour and energy.
And Gilroy's story ensures that we see an awful lot of it. Following Lou Bloom (Gyllenhal), an eager, intensely focused sociopath getting by as a petty thief when we first encounter him, the film traces his burgeoning career as a freelance "Nightcrawler". Armed with a police scanner and a camera, he prowls L.A. by night, filming crime scenes and accidents and selling the results to local TV news, where he strikes up a creepy, co-dependent relationship with News producer Rene Russo. As he learns his trade and begins to make money he takes on an employee, Rick (Riz Ahmed) and develops a rivalry with Bill Paxton's cocky veteran. And then Lou's real personality begins to emerge - the positive thinking and corporate jargon he spouts fails to hide his ruthless willingness to go to any lengths to succeed, leading him and Rick into dangerous territory.
Gyllenhal plays Lou as a force of nature, lacking in any scruples or shame, totally focused upon success, the people around him only tools he can use. If the film has a real flaw, it's the queasy glee it seems to take in pointing out the creepiness of his character. There is no insight or empathy here, only a sort of "look at the weirdo" feeling which is a tad disappointing in a film that is otherwise so cleverly conceived and made.
Even that is leavened by the way it is developed as a theme; the world is full of people like Lou, Gilroy seems to be saying, in fact they are rewarded for the inhuman qualities they possess. People like Lou end up running things in this world. That's a dark, ballsy thing for a little crime thriller to articulate, and a big part of what is so impressive about Nightcrawler is that it is able to express that without ever sacrificing any of it's tension or excitement.
It climaxes with a terrific action sequence, though the scene where Lou reveals his true self to Russo over dinner might just shade that one as the film's most thrilling.