Nightcrawler might have some impressive talent both in front of and behind the screen, but this is an vacant, flaccid thriller.

Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut Nightcrawler arrived on the scene at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival with enthusiastic reviews, and buzz likening (and star Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance) to a present day Taxi Driver.  While Gilroy’s film certainly shows promise for the freshman director and Gyllenhaal is gamely creepy, Nightcrawler suffers from a weak script, with a crippling lack of characterization and a wildly varying tone.  The film tries to be a satire, a condemnation of America’s (specifically the media’s) obsession with violence, and a high-octane thriller all-in-one.  It fails on all three counts.  The film severely lack focus and context, which brings the whole enterprise to its knees. But there are moments and performances that are worth seeing here, which makes the rest of what’s up on the screen even more frustrating.

Nightcrawler follows the late-night exploits of an overbearing, determined opportunist named Leo Bloom (Gyllenhaal) who describes himself as “fast learner” and “hard worker” — the same descriptions so many of us use on resumes, though he certainly subverts their meaning.  Bloom robs, steals, and assaults to make a living until one night he witnesses a fiery car crash on an L.A. highway, where a freelance “news” film crew captures the carnage to later sell to any ratings-craving news network.  Bloom is inspired by the “if it bleeds it leads” motto of the freelance crew leader Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) and decides this is exactly the kind of job he is looking for.  Bloom quickly gathers his own equipment and becomes a leader in the field, as he is willing to do almost anything to “get the shot”.  His ego is bolstered by a veteran local news network executive named Nina (Rene Russo), whose long-lasting, yet floundering career could certainly use a boost.  As the film progresses, Bloom descends into profession-driven madness, and his tactics become increasingly hostile, manipulative, and morally, ethically, and legally suspect.

The above synopsis makes the film sound far more interesting than it actually is.  The main problem lies with the lead character himself, who is a complete sociopath from the opening frames to the last.  Bloom begins the film by assaulting a security officer for his expensive looking watch.  Does he kill the man?  It’s quite possible, but the film doesn’t bother to answer the question and the longer it goes on the less you begin to care.  As Bloom’s acts become more atrocious it isn’t at all surprising, given what’s come before.  There is zero context for this character — not even a nugget of backstory is given, and just when you think you might get some information, the film quickly sidesteps any possible answers.  Jake Gyllenhaal is working hard here and he definitely has some great line readings.  His gaunt frame and piercing boyish gaze is effective, but whatever Gyllenhaal has manufactured in his mind to make the performance work isn’t on the page and it’s barely on the screen.  Bloom is an empty vessel and his final scenes aren’t suspenseful, but merely inevitable.

Other characters in the film are reduced to plot points.  Bill Paxton’s Joe shows up for a few minutes at a time to explain how this sordid industry works and to function as a foil for Bloom.  He disappears midway through the narrative to little fanfare.  Riz Ahmed plays Bloom’s business partner (in the loosest definition of the term) and employee who provides GPS navigation and not much else.  He’s meant to be the film’s moral center and its eventual corruption, but it’s difficult to care for a character so fundamentally stupid (his final scenes are groan-inducing).  The only performance with some real meat to chew on is Rene Russo as Nina.  She is obviously channeling Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen in Network, but the performance works because of her mix of subtle vulnerability, vamp-y sex appeal, and power-hungry domination.  The smartest decision writer-turned-director Dan Gilroy made with Nightcrawler was casting his wife Russo in this role, proving at age 60 that she can still be a commanding presence with jaw-dropping sensuality.  But this is an actress who has never gotten the plaudits she so richly deserves.  This role is a gift.

Nightcrawler’s atmosphere is evocative enough, and director of photography Robert Elswit (one of America’s truly great cinematographers) captures the dark grime of Los Angeles’s nighttime playground, but it is all style with little meaning.  The film’s climax might be exciting, but it stretches credibility and anyone who is an aficionado of the thriller genre will see these beats play out well before they arrive.  There is a lot of talent involved in this production, but just like its lead character, the film is an empty vessel.

Grade: C-

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