One of the best film's of 2014 comes from writer Dan Gilroy, who makes his debut in the director's chair with this hard-hitting and unpolished story about a young drifter and petty thief who finds new purpose in life working as a freelance nightcrawler – roaming the streets of Los Angeles armed with a police radio and a camera, waiting for the next controversial and/or bloody crime to photograph – and then hopefully sell the pictures to one of the local news stations.
On one level, this is a scrutinising and understated character study; an intimate, unrelenting examination of a man who does everything he can to keep up an appearance of professionalism and control, and who only through small glimpses of letting his guard down and his control falter discloses his true self. What's most remarkable about this character and Jake Gyllenhaal masterful portrait of him, is not how his sociopathic traits become apparent, subtly but surely, but rather how one of the reasons he never lets his guard down is because he fears what will be revealed underneath it, not for the sake of others, but for the sake of himself. It's as if he's never really gotten to know his own identity, perhaps because he's never successfully created it for himself, or perhaps because he doesn't dare to deal with him. Lou is a harrowing character with a psychological profile and depth reminiscent of iconic characters such as Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) or Patrick Bateman (American Psycho). And Gyllenhaal's performance is up there with those of De Niro and Bale, respectively.
On another level, Nightcrawler is stark, clever and thought-provoking social criticism, with a deft touch of black comedy sprinkled here and there. The interplay between our Lou and his news director Nina embodies the media criticism perfectly: Like the public and the entire media industry, Nina craves Lou's product like a drug. While she at first seems to be wanting the footage simply in order to succeed professionally, it soon becomes evident that her needs are far more deeply anchored: She's emotionally and physically drawn to the best (ie. the most extreme) news stories and shots like a moth to the flame, going as far as sacrificing her own personal life for the sake of it. She's not Lou's peer, in fact she's put off by his manipulative modus operandi, but they share the same goal, and she's a prisoner of the same industry (or way of life, if you like) – an industry which she of course brought him into in the first place.
Gilroy's direction is piercingly sharp. He lets us do all the thinking of our own, but he never lets us escape. He invites us in and presents this wicked, dark world with all of its lure and attraction, all of the highs and, ultimately, the lows. He's not letting us doubt the attraction it all has on Lou, and although Lou is loner and a misfit, he's also very much a man looking for his place in society, just like any of us. Gyllenhaal makes him empathetic, but yet completely inaccessible, which makes him a fascinating mystery. And the film ends the way it always does in the news business, with another night and another story. Nothing learned, nothing remembered. Just brilliant filmmaking.