The Empty Balcony: Nightcrawler

Every serious actor has to do a film where they play a deranged freak — someone sociopathic or supremely bent who decides to interact with the people around them, much to those people’s distress. Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Christian Bale in American Psycho, Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast, and many others, all played men who were malignancies to every person they met. Jake Gyllenhaal has come close before, but with Nightcrawler, last year’s film from writer/director Dan Gilroy, he has gone full creepy.

Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a shiftless and remote man, living in poverty in Los Angeles, making ends meet through petty theft. One night he comes across the scene of an accident on the highway. A freelance TV news crew arrives and Lou discovers his life’s calling. The next night he is out with a cheap camera and police scanner of his own, chasing down police and ambulance calls. He’s a vulture, totally fearless in getting the footage he needs to sell to the overnight news director of a local television station, Nina (Rene Russo). With her encouragement, Lou trawls nighttime Los Angeles, gathering bloody, up-close footage that other freelance operators are too timid to pursue.

As the film progresses, Lou’s methods become more and more unethical. He is shown staging a body at the scene of an accident for a better shot. Nina, for her part, retains plausible deniability. It’s obvious that this man who walked into the station uninvited late one evening peddling his wares is a disturbed individual, at best, but he has the best product. Fearing for her own job security, she continues to encourage Lou’s behavior, while working to maintain her own ignorance as to his methods.

Lou Bloom is an interesting character, and Gyllenhaal works him as best he can. But, when I think of sociopaths, I think of someone who is very skilled at blending in — a participant in society but not totally of it. Gyllenhaal plays Bloom with such a high degree of creepiness that I don’t think it’s realistic for the people he encounters to continue to deal with him. Everything about him is crazy, screaming at people to cross to the other side of the street when they see him coming. Sure, the people he has the greatest interactions with (Nina and Rick, a roustabout he hires as his assistant, played by Riz Ahmed) only bother because they are desperate, but Lou never comes off as trustworthy, and always seems to be on the verge of violence.

Gyllenhaal’s enthusiasm comes through when Lou goes on one of his many business buzzword tangents. It’s an interesting character trait, and gives much insight to Lou’s behavior. He has latched on to a ruthless interpretation of the entrepreneurial spirit, using the dehumanizing language of pure capitalism as justification for all the horrible things he has done. All of this comes to a head when Lou and Rick chase down a police call for a shooting. Afterwards, no one he knows can pretend for any longer that he is not his own breed of monster. It only remains to be seen how he gets his comeuppance, or if he manages to continue on, and how much further damage he does.

Gilroy has crafted a very interesting film. It’s also complete. From beginning to end, there is very little wasted screen time. I love seeing a film that has no filler. My only real criticism is with Gyllenhaal’s performance. A little less crazy, I think, would have worked wonders. Lou could have been just as nutty while spouting lines in a normal cadence and tone. Lou is faking it all, anyway. One would think that at some point in his life he would have figured out how to imitate normal people. As it is, there were a few too many times in the film where I just wasn’t buying it.