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If It Bleeds, It Leads

A magnetic Jake Gyllenhaal chases down the news in Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler begins as a sleek, beautifully filmed portrait of desperation in uncertain times. Under Los Angeles’ flickering lights, people are desperate to keep their jobs, or to find jobs, and a degree of dubiousness is par for the course. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a small-time thief, stealing scrap metal for cash, when he stumbles onto a new career: At a crime scene, there’s a man with a camera, gathering footage for local news. Inspired, Bloom buys his own gear and hires an “intern,” Rick (Riz Ahmed). Before long, he’s regularly selling footage to Nina (Rene Russo), the no-bullshit news director of a local station.

Bloom speaks in carefully enunciated sentences that are so exact they sound practiced. With bulging, wide eyes, his cheekbones glaring out from a lean face, Gyllenhaal — who dropped 30 pounds for the role — radiates a ropy, barely contained rage.  Bloom is notably well-suited to the work he chooses; nothing bothers him, not blood, not angry cops, not Rick’s fear when Bloom tears down city streets at 80 miles an hour.  It’s his work. He wants to win. And it’s not until he’s established himself as purveyor of valuable footage that his true persona reveals itself: He’s basically a sociopath. Nothing is unreasonable where his success is concerned.

Longtime screenwriter and first-time director Dan Gilroy loses some of the resonance when Bloom starts crossing lines, but there’s another level of cultural relevance lurking in the characters.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Bloom, usurping control through manipulation and ruthlessness, is the lone white male in his immediate work circle. 

But I’m also not entirely sure what Gilroy thinks he’s saying with this. As the film boils up to its somewhat predictable and not entirely plausible end, it loses power, even as Gilroy concocts an undeniably tense chase scene — Bloom’s shiny red muscle car in pursuit of the cops who are in pursuit of a killer. (It’s almost impossible not to think, briefly, of Drive.) 

Gyllenhaal is magnetic, creepy, compellingly horrible — but the movie leaves too much in his hands; whatever commentary it intended to make, on socio-economic status or the scaremongering tactics of TV news, isn’t as powerful as that performance.