Editor’s Note: Nightcrawler is now playing in theaters, check out our own Jacqueline Valencia’s review here.
Nightcrawler opened on Friday to a moderate amount of fanfare; a small genre film which was stuck somewhere between Steve Carrell’s nose in Foxcatcher and Reese Witherspoon’s supposed comeback at Toronto. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a wily millennial-stand-in trying to master the art of nightcrawling (or, filming post-crime incidents for bloodthirsty local news producers). In Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, Hollywood again turns on itself, attempting to show the underbelly of a repulsive and even corrupt system which incentivizes deceit at the price of questionable morality. But while Gilroy teases audiences with a system possibly nearer to our own than we would be comfortable with, he may have also given us one of the most important movies of the fall.
While the proximity to crime and fast cars has many critics lazily putting Nightcrawler in the kinship of 2011’s Drive, Refn’s arthouse intensity was as accessible to a wide audience as is the newest film from Jean-Luc Godard.
Set in a Los Angeles of greys and blacks, Lou Bloom’s cherry-red Dodge Charger roars down the avenues chasing the next carjacking, house fire, or armed robbery. The dialogue is tight, but he’s a loose cannon with a lead foot, putting the life of his assistant Ric as well as his own in danger for a pay day, or more importantly, for the recognition of his favorite customer at local channel 6. While the proximity to crime and fast cars has many critics lazily putting Nightcrawler in the kinship of 2011’s Drive, Refn’s arthouse intensity was as accessible to a wide audience as the newest film from Jean-Luc Godard (Goodbye to Language reviewed by Soheil Rezayazdi here). Gosling’s near-silent role, while cool and fearless, played widely as robotic and emotionless, and an atypical story arc (in the blockbuster world of Transformers, anyways) drove it into box office obscurity. Refn’s film placed third in its opening weekend, behind The Lion King 3D and Contagion, another genre-thriller, while the gulf between critic and fan scores on Rotten Tomatoes sits at 15 percent (93 to 78 percent).
Nightcrawler certainly features a largely inaccessible lead. Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom feeds on a reciprocating lust for trauma and danger, while at the same time quoting free online lectures from a cheesy business appreciation course. Among the most memorable moments in the film is when Bloom, fleeing the scene of a recently-filmed crime, berates his lowly assistant for not taking the “initiative” to join him amongst the blood and smoking guns, and that he should apply himself more forcefully in the future. Bloom’s attitude toward his profession (if we dare even call it that) is bewildering and possibly downright disgusting. Emotionally, his character doesn’t reasonably connect to anyone else on screen, much less audiences nationwide.
This is either because of or in spite of the goodwill Gyllenhaal has built with audiences throughout his career. From his broad-faced teenage days, Gyllenhaal has continually chosen roles which challenged as much as rewarded his admirers, from October Sky to Donnie Darko, and Brokeback Mountain to Enemy. The latter is perhaps his deepest venture into the world of art films (not to mention his most talented performance until now), which also saw a TIFF premiere last year, but hardly expanded beyond that. Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 psychological thriller expanded to a meager 120 screens in March of last year and alienated much of its VOD audience (with a measly 60 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes).
But by all indications, Gyllenhaal and Gilroy have found the perfect mix. After a strong showing in the Special Presentation section at TIFF, Nightcrawler opened on over 2,700 screens Halloween weekend . Despite competing with the usual scare-fare, Nightcrawler managed to rake in over $10 million, falling just shy of the number one spot. Critics have been increasingly positive, praising the original concepts and especially Gyllenhaal’s lights-out take on a talented, misplaced individual without a hint of direction in his life. Gilroy and co-star Riz Ahmed are in contention for breakthrough Gotham Awards next month, and most importantly: Nightcrawler is a challenging movie.
…films like Nightcrawler are important to remind those outside of southern California and New York that films can be darker than a feel-good biopic and more opaque than a standard revenge-thriller.
Made on a now-meager $8 million budget, Gilroy’s original story was advertised like a traditional crime thriller, yet it plays as anything but standard. The film is not so much indicative of a trend as much as it is a creative lighthouse in the darkness of a mega-budget, franchise-driven ocean. The script, well-crafted and adeptly executed, is non-traditional to wide audiences who may expect typical beats during daylight scenes or a proper denouement following the final car chase. Many moviegoers will probably leave the theater wondering why they felt like they enjoyed the film, and many others will leave wondering why they hated it. Regardless, films like Nightcrawler are important to remind those outside of southern California and New York that films can be darker than a feel-good biopic and more opaque than a standard revenge-thriller. The fact that Bold Films can make, and more importantly that Open Road can widely distribute, a film which documents a character as belligerently atypical (and amoral) as Lou Bloom is a sign of only good things. You don’t have to know your Resnais to appreciate film beyond the latest Taken, and Nightcrawler is a testament to how smaller-budget genre films still have a place on the marquee.