Hot on the heels of Gone Girl, here comes another bleak, disturbing film about the awfulness of humanity. Yet where Gone Girl came with certain expectations – best-selling novel, A-list director – Nightcrawler arrives as an unknown quantity, the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, whose prior screenwriting credits don’t exactly inspire.
As it turns out, not only is Nightcrawler an absolutely excellent film, but the script is one of its strongest features. The film uses a number of different techniques to shock its audience, but amidst all the blood, the most unsettling moments are nonchalant lines of dialogue that subtly describe an even more horrific world just off-camera.
Jake Gyllenhaal has been choosing interesting projects of late, and here is yet another thriller that’s more interested in the psychological than the physical. His character Lou Bloom is an ambitious loner who starts his own business filming tragedy and selling it to TV news. Gyllenhaal’s performance is a masterclass in understated yet terrifying creepiness, a sociopath to match Tom Ripley or Hannibal Lecter, and he must surely be considered another front-runner in an increasingly crowded Best Actor race.
Nightcrawler does almost everything right. It structures itself as a lean thriller: characterisations and motivations are clean but perfunctory, and little time is wasted on establishing backstory or fleshing out the film’s universe. The tone is an even blend of morbid humour and suspense, and the pace quickens as the streamlined plot builds to its audacious end. The result is an exhilarating, claustrophobic two hours of cinema that doesn’t once get distracted from what it’s trying to achieve.
This is also a beautiful film. Night-time Los Angeles is a tried and tested backdrop for murky character thrillers, and Nightcrawler’s slick cinematography is reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Collateral, using the city’s neon-lit solitude to accentuate its themes. The writing too is often exquisite: underwritten for the most part, then showy in the best way, with captivating vignettes that illuminate character and leave the audience to draw conclusions.
Ultimately the film doesn’t judge Bloom for his actions. Instead it argues that he exists because he can exist. Society allows it; more, it encourages it. In the end, the film is its own thesis. It contends that humans have a base desire for suffering that can be exploited for entertainment. And then it exploits this idea for entertainment. If you don’t feel dirty for loving this film, you’re probably a sociopath.