Jake Gyllenhaal, from the moment he is on screen, is fantastically riveting. I won’t say he is unrecognizable in his role as Lou Bloom, a conscience-free opportunist with a shocking lack of moral compass. Physically, he is the handsome Jake we know and love, with his sly smile and eyes so wide with enthusiasm that you can see whites all the way around his pupils. But he is notably gaunt. He is greasy. And his smile is charmless and more than a little creepy.
We know Lou is a thief. He is a liar. He learns all he can off the internet and speaks as though he is rattling off the bullet points of someone else’s motivational speech. He doesn’t seem to have a job beyond lurking around the empty urban streets of L.A. in the wee hours. On one of his nighttime wanderings, he sees a car accident and pulls over to watch as a couple of first responders pry a victim from a burning car. But Lou is not fascinated by the rescue; he is intrigued by the “freelance” cameraman filming the event in order to turn around and sell it to the morning TV news. One person’s crisis is another person’s opportunity. Lou gets himself a camera.
Nightcrawler makes no bones about speeding in one direction. Lou works his way into a “first look” relationship with one local television station after his initial successes in getting some sensational (and sensationally boundary-crossing) crime footage. Violence sells on TV. Especially violence against white people. The more sensational, the better. In turn, Lou sells himself, with his words and his footage. The way he sells himself to the station’s morning news producer Nina (Rene Russo) is so ghoulishly fascinating that you can see the exact moment that this strong, intelligent woman realizes that she has been backed into a corner by Lou’s bizarre logic. The moment that Nina wonders what the hell just happened is the same moment that the audience guffaws, wondering the exact same thing.
In this era of TMZ being the first to break the most lurid and shocking stories, the “anything for a story” news-gathering techniques in Nightcrawler don’t seem that far off of reality. People like creepy Lou are easy to vilify: Why would someone ever film something so horrible? So insensitively? With so little compassion? But we don’t turn off the TV. We click the shocking video and watch it. We share it with our friends, under the guise of exclaiming our outrage. And that is exactly how they get us. This realization is where the uncomfortable laughter comes in, along with the overwhelming urge to scrub yourself clean of this dirty dirty world of media that we live in.