Even before Twilight finally drove a stake through their hearts forever, vampires were played out and non-threatening. The plague-carrying rat-like beast portrayed by Max Schreck in Nosferatu was gradually replaced by Robert Pattinson’s sparkly heartthrob as Hollywood spent years sucking out (pun definitely intended) every drop of danger from the genre. Whilst there are no undead to be found in Nightcrawler, the character Louis Bloom is far more of a creature of the night than the sanitised bloodsuckers of recent years.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Bloom as a thing to which morality is legitimately confusing, when he interacts with others it’s like watching a carnivorous alien whose exclusive knowledge of humans comes from get-rich-quick books and corporate jargon attempt to blend in with its prey. Gyllenhaal lost twenty pounds to give Bloom a hungry look and it works perfectly, his verminous silhouette coupled with eyes as dark and blank as the Mariana Trench speak to a man whose hunger for success is akin to a shark in a feeding frenzy. Beginning the film as a petty criminal, his life is transformed when, on his way home, he happens on the gruesome aftermath of a car wreck. Whilst observing ambulance personnel remove the body, the scene is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a group of ‘nightcrawlers’, freelance cameramen who film the grisly aftermath of crimes, crashes and carnage to sell to whichever morning news program bids the highest; the philosophy touted like a holy tract is that, “if it bleeds, it leads” (so long as it’s affluent whites doing the bleeding that is). Bloom is soon cruising the dark streets of Los Angeles himself, listening to a police radio with a camera in easy reach of twitching fingers, ready to feed on any blood he can scrounge up (with only his viewfinder rather than his fangs).
The film’s precise genre is tough to gauge, as it flirts with comedy, drama, thriller and satire without really committing to any of them (though perhaps, out of that four, it leans closest to thriller) and whilst this enables a rare flexibility, sometimes it feels as though first time director Dan Gilroy is attempting to keep too many plates spinning at once. Mostly he does a capable job however, evoking a strong visual aesthetic where LA seems perpetually dark, even in the day, which helps to immerse you in Lou’s nightmarish playground. Things work best for the first three quarters of the film when Bloom and the news company he feeds are shown non judgmentally; Bloom is a ghoul and whilst his employers appear to be far more human than he is, the scramble for ratings mean that their taste for blood is as sharp as his. However we are invited to revel in his rise rather than condemn it. There is something of an unspoken point that both Bloom and the morning news are merely fulfilling a public desire for this kind of footage; the same kind of people who would be horrified by Bloom’s avid gaze happily consume the product he trawls the dark for. Things become a little clunkier towards the end when the film begins to moralise, but some capable action set-pieces help to offset this disappointment.
The film almost entirely stands and falls with Gyllenhaal’s central performance, which is the best he’s ever delivered. An argument could be made that the film could have more weight as a window into the bleak world of nightcrawling with a less sociopathic character, but with a performance this strong it’s tricky to wish for anything else. Entertaining, horrifying and always compelling he is the film’s true North, holding it together though some pacing issues (it could probably be twenty minutes shorter) and a slightly disappointing soundtrack (one can only dream of what Gone Girl’s Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross could have done with such a palate). Nightcrawler scurries to its own frenzied pace, it bleeds and it leads.