‘Nightcrawler’ explores the dark side of the American dream

Jake Gyllenhaal's turns in an excellent performance in "Nightcrawler." LIONEL HAHN/ABACA PRESS

“If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket,” Lou (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) says repeatedly throughout “Nightcrawler.” These words reflect both Lou’s principles and those of the American dream. In fact, Lou, a keen young entrepreneur, aptly represents the tenants of this dream, putting hard work and determination first and being rewarded second. Lou is someone we all could aspire to be like, but definitely shouldn’t.

Released on Oct. 31, “Nightcrawler” follows Lou as he tries to make a name for himself in the world of TV crime reporting. He scrapes together enough money to buy his “lottery ticket” — a cheap little handheld camera — and sets off to learn about the industry. His work ethic is admirable; his ethics, however, are not. It’s not often the protagonist of a film is a sociopath, but audiences will find themselves strangely conflicted between rooting for this hard-working small business owner and being utterly repulsed by his actions and stoic demeanor. The character is very inspiring, as he climbs the ranks of the industry very quickly. Many will fear what they see of themselves in Lou, and that is why the film succeeds.

Representing both sides of the coin that is the American dream, Lou is the the foil to Ryan Gosling as Driver in “Drive” (2011). The Driver is what everyone aspires to be: the quiet, good-looking, selfless and humble man’s man who is rewarded by hard work. Lou, however, is the crushing reality of this deity: the talkative, creepy-looking, overly-determined everyman who achieves his success through absolute selfishness. One could imagine “Nightcrawler” to be the comical story of a boringly regular man inspired by “Drive,” but would be completely misunderstanding the latter’s moral assertion.

Much like Lou, first-time director Dan Gilroy does very well with rather meager means. Using a budget of $8 million, Gilroy was able to create a beautiful and compelling film. Working alongside the talented cinematographer Robert Elswit, famous for his work on “There Will Be Blood” (2007) and “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), they were able to capture the essence of night. The film is shot much like a classic film noir with a modern storyline. The pulse of nighttime in Los Angeles permeates the screen as we cruise through parts of the city not usually seen in films.

The film would be nothing without Jake Gyllenhaal’s perfect portrayal of a sociopath. Unapologetic, selfish, wickedly intelligent and completely lacking any emotion whatsoever, Gyllenhaal will make audiences squirm in their seats with just a grin. Often overlooked because of a few poor choices — “Bubble Boy” (2001) and “Prince of Persia” (2010) come to mind — and sometimes called just a pretty face, Gyllenhaal has had a recent good run of form. From the surprisingly successful “End of Watch” (2012) to the critically acclaimed thriller “Prisoners” (2013), and now “Nightcrawler,” Gyllenhaal should have his strong presence in Hollywood solidified. He is showing no signs of slowing down with an upcoming project directed by Oscar-magnet David O. Russell.

The film’s cinematography and acting performances give it strength, yet the overall work ultimately succeeds most through its gripping plot. All other qualities only serve to support this thrilling tale of a sociopath loose in Los Angeles. Given time, the film will certainly be remembered as one of Gyllenhaal’s greatest performances, and will hopefully mark the beginning of a prolific directing career for already established screenwriter Gilroy. But remember: If you want to see a great movie, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.


Summary

"Nightcrawler's" cinematography and acting performances give it strength, yet the overall work ultimately succeeds most through its gripping plot.

4.5 stars
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