I saw Nightcrawler four days ago, and yet when I sat down to bloc “this week’s movie” I had to look at the listings page to jog my memory. I’m not sure if that means that my mind is finally starting to drift, or that Nightcrawler is not as good as I thought it was on the day.
At the time, I was pretty impressed. It’s a good looking movie. It must be fun to shoot the scenery without having to worry that it’s supposed to be somewhere else; Nightcrawler is LA, in the role of LA, and the streetscape glistens in the half-light. And the performances are solid, to the extent that anyone’s getting a look in around Jake Gyllenhall’s portrayal of the appalling Lou Bloom.
What makes Lou Bloom appalling is not what he does. We’re numbed and blunted now; in every two hour entertainment we see the good guys hand out more death and destruction than any modern person will see in a life time, and we’re programmed to cheer. So when Lou drags a half dead road accident victim into a better place for his shot, or orchestrates two or three murders for the sake of exclusive video, that’s just routine for the multiplex. What carries it over the edge is the creepy running commentary. There’s always someone for Lou to explain his actions to, either on the scene, or later on as he tries to turn a profit on his latest piece of evil. And he has an endless stream of glib patter, whether he’s making up gibberish about a bike that he’s just stolen or spinning a line of crypto-MBA self-justification to keep his hapless assistant from ever getting a raise. Lou is not a terrible human being; he’s something completely alien, almost, but not quite, impersonating a terrible human being.
It’s an extraordinary performance from Gyllenhall, who’s always been a little otherworldly, but never in such a malevolent way. Only time will tell whether it will change the direction of his career, which hasn’t really had a direction up until now; he’s always been striking, but it’s been hard to know what kind of actor he wants to be. Lou Bloom is his first villain, and he’s a villain for our times. Hollywood’s made a lot of movies about journalists who do horrible things to get an exclusive. The horrible is always negotiable, but the characters tend to go one of two ways; either they knew better once and they’ve just had a moral collapse, or they’re grandiose strangers to decency, practically relishing the sheer wickedness as part of the fun. Lou is not grandiose; he’s small time, glib and self-centred. It’s fascinating to watch him run his bullshit on the people around him, convinced that it’s working, that they’re taking him at face value as a skilled, educated, real boy. Meanwhile his colleagues and victims in journalism - Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton and Kevin Rahm - aren’t taken in for a moment, but can’t think of a decent way to confront him. Lou sails on obliviously, thinking that he’s won everyone over when really he’s just run them over and they can’t get up.
It’s one of those performances where either you’re thinking “I work with someone just like that.” or you’re anxiously wondering if that’s the way you look to other people. Of course, if you actually were Lou Bloom, it would never occur to you for a moment that there was anything wrong with what you were seeing, still less that the problem might be you. So, this week’s top tip; if you’ve been to see Nightcrawler and you thought Lou made a lot of sense, make sure you tell people how much you liked him. You’ll be doing them a favour. They’ll appreciate the headsup.