Is this the moment when the ‘man bun’ trend will finally be put to bed? Watching Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom repeatedly tie his greasy locks into a tiny little top-knot would be enough to put anyone off the hairstyle for life. Louis is an abhorrent and shady character, coldly dispassionate in the face of morbidity and violence. Played with unsettling brilliance by Gyllenhaal, he skulks through the film with a poise and control that is always hinting at something diseased inside of him. And his hair really is horrible.
When we first meet him, he is unemployed, unable to get a job (or even an unpaid ‘internship’) at the local scrapyard. As he drives home from another unsuccessful day’s job-hunting, he notices a car crash and stops to see what’s going on. It is here, as he watches two men boorishly shove cameras as close as they can get to the wreckage, into the faces of the emergency services and the bleeding victims themselves, that he learns of the sordid, after-dark world of ‘nightcrawling’, finding the latest crimes and accidents using police scanners and racing to the scene in order to be the first to capture exclusive footage to sell to the TV news companies. Louis quickly becomes very good at this and, in a world already rife with corruption, he manages to sink to the lowest points of immorality in order to rise to the heady heights of the profession.
Louis is driven entirely by his desire to succeed. He explains to the news editor of the TV station that he has learnt everything he knows through the internet; he is the modern, corporate man, but this corporatism, when translated to this seedy underworld, seems incongruous, even disturbing. He hires an ‘intern’, Rick (Riz Ahmed), he is permanently adding his latest videos to a portfolio, and he speaks the language of the intern, the potential employee.
As he says in his impromptu pitch to the scrapyard boss, he’s a hard worker; he sets high goals. Louis is a corrupt exaggeration of a businessman, a man who has taken the advice of CV building websites and interview guides to their grotesque extreme and will stop at nothing to achieve those high goals, even if it means stomping all over any notion of journalistic ethics in his path.
Undeniably, though, Louis is good at his job. He clearly has an eye for a great shot, and Gyllenhaal’s sleek, almost greasy performance, gliding unemotionally through the carnage, highlights his skill as a cameraman as much as his moral vacuity.
And this skill in making the gross look great is shared by first time director, Dan Gilroy. Nightcrawler is the latest in a long tradition of films which imbue a corrupt, pulsating city with such lurid beauty that you almost forget how disgusting it is. Comparisons to Taxi Driver have been bandied about and they are very much justified: Gilroy does for LA what Scorsese did for New York, rooting out fantastic shots in a city that has become mired in its own immorality. His framings of the dawning sun against the mass of grey below, in particular, serve both as gorgeous images in their own right, and a cleansing from the experiences Louis has put us through during the previous night.
If his first film is anything to go by, Gilroy will be climbing that career ladder as quickly as his protagonist. Nightcrawler is silky yet cerebral, brutal yet beautiful. Through a compellingly nasty central performance by Gyllenhaal, Gilroy forces us to enter LA’s unrelentingly dark, disturbing underbelly. A subtler but still excellent supporting cast contributes too — great turns from Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed catch the eye — and despite the violence, it is impossible to turn our eyes away.