Last year, Matthew McConaughey rose from the ashes of bad action movies and crummy rom-coms to completely reboot his career. With roles in 'True Detective' and 'The Dallas Buyers Club,' the so-called McConaissance began. The resurgence was remarkable for how unlikely it was to happen, so what are the odds it could happen again this year? Enter: Jake Gyllenhaal. With a stunning performance in Dan Gilroy's satiric news thriller 'Nightcrawler,' the former Prince of Persia could be the next actor to force the moviegoing public to rethink everything we thought of him.
In the film, Gyllenhall stars as Louis Bloom, a low-level Los Angeles thief who slinks around the streets after dark looking for a quick buck. One night, after selling some scrap metal, Bloom drives past a car accident on the highway and stops. As he watches EMTs pull the driver from the wreckage, a news crew pulls up and shoots the carnage. The experience is revelatory; Bloom has found his calling. He trades in some junk at a pawn shop for a cheapo camcorder and a police scanner and soon enough, he's testing the waters as a freelance video crew, specializing in sleazy and salacious stories. As a competing shooter, played by Bill Paxton, explains, "If it bleeds, it leads."
Soon he's hiring homeless male escorts to assist him and selling down and dirty (emphasis on dirty) news clips to a desperate local news producer (Rene Russo, reminding us just how good she was when she was working consistently in movies). But, Bloom is not just an enterprising wanna-be journalist. He's also a sociopath. Gyllenhaal lost over 30 pounds for the role and looks positively ghoulish: his face is nothing but sunken cheeks, waxy skin and bug eyes. Just looking at him you can tell something is not quite right with Louis. But, changing his leading man looks isn't just a gimmick. Gyllenhaal simmers with the intensity of a madman just barely containing his psychoses. As the film progresses, much of the tension revolves around when (not if, when) Bloom finally snaps. When he does, it's not with the rage of a violent killer, but with the cold disconnect of a psychopath.
It's a revelatory performance from Gyllenhaal, an actor once pushed to his limits by David Fincher while filming 'Zodiac' (Fincher would later say of Gyllenhaal's work, "When you go to your job, is it supposed to be fun, or are you supposed to get stuff done?"). It's the kind of performance many wondered if Gyllenhaal had in him. But, one thing separating Gyllenhaal's performance in 'Nightcrawler' from McConaughey's in 'Dallas Buyers Club' (and also 'True Detective'), is that it's not in service of better material.
As a character study of the demented Louis Bloom, it's fascinating. As a dark satire on the state of shock news, it's more disappointing. Much of the film relies on the audience being surprised that this is how local network news works. This may have been revelatory back in 1976 when 'Network' hit theaters, but it's less so know. We're a far more media savvy culture, so when Russo's producer explains what is newsworthy - carjackings, fires, crashes, stabbings (but only in predominantly white, middle-class areas) - it's meant to elicit gasps and nervous laughter. Instead we just nod along knowingly because, yes, this is all we see on the news.
The film is beautifully shot (almost entirely at night) by longtime Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Robert Elswit and Gilroy, making his directorial debut, shows enough promise that we'll be curious to see what he does next. But, the real success is the gutsy, evolutionary performance from Gyllenhall, who we're all going to have to start taking a lot more seriously as an actor. And, that's breaking news.