Last night at the Toronto International Film Festival, Jake Gyllenhaal unleashed his unholy new baby: a Taxi Driver for the TMZ generation.
There's a bravura moment in first-time director Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler that perfectly encapsulates the movie's high degree of fucked-up-ness. In a smalltime Los Angeles local news station's control room, the nighttime news program's director and producers watch as their two monotone and vanilla on-air anchors provide detached color-commentary for a grisly piece of on-the-scene news footage. They're looking at the aftermath of a triple homicide in the affluent Granada Hills area; the footage shows all of the crime scene's blood and bullet-holed corpses, as well as a baby's empty crib, but the anchors are so soullessly doing their jobs that their descriptions of the carnage might as well be the play-by-play of a golf match. It's like viewing those Super 8 snuff films in Sinister but with added narration from Fred Willard's commentator character in Best in Show.
Standing in the back of the control room and smiling is Lou Bloom, Nightcrawler's cold-hearted embodiment of ruthless ambition played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Lou's the man who shot the footage—meaning, he's the guy who illegally entered the murder scene before the cops arrived so he could film the wreckage and sell it to the news station's director (Rene Russo). Lou, a former petty thief and perpetually un-hirable loser, is an independent video journalist, or, as the title says, a "nightcrawler." He's one of many ambulance-chasing cameramen who prowl the streets of Los Angeles tracking down the film able repercussions caused by fatal car accidents, deadly fires, and killings. They're a kind of guerrilla paparazzi better suited for the Grim Reaper than Access Hollywood. But none of them are as dedicated to erasing their humanity as Lou Bloom, who, at one point, drags a dead body in front of a smashed-up vehicle's beaming headlights in order to get a better shot.
Yet, guess what? Nightcrawler is often hilarious, in that I-can't-help-but-laugh-to-avoid-the-harsh-reality-of-the-situation sort of way. It's the bleakest and most cynical feel-good movie of 2014, or of any other recent year. Jake Gyllenhaal's chilling performance—a brilliant compendium of malice, greed, and disconnection—legitimately deserves recognition in the forthcoming Golden Globes ceremony's Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy category. He remarkably brings to life a character who's essentially a Travis Bickle for today's media-desensitized society, if Travis Bickle's internalized nihilism were to manifest itself as externalized malevolence.
Seriously, Gilroy—a veteran screenwriter (Real Steel, The Bourne Legacy) who also penned Nightcrawler—has created a beast of a character in Lou Bloom. And in Gyllenhaal, Gilroy has found an actor in his prime, a suddenly fearless and daring A-lister who's abandoned flashy dreck like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for weirder genre fare like the early 2014 standout Enemy. That risky career redirection completely pays off here. Nightcrawler affords Gyllenhaal the opportunity to play a reprehensible, anti-commercial creeper in a movie that, oddly enough, has the potential to be as broadly embraced as, yes, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. At the world premiere screening last night here in Toronto, there were roughly five moments where the packed Elgin Theatre burst into applause. If Nightcrawler's distributor, Open Road Films handles everything properly, this could be a box office smash come its Halloween release date. That's not something you'd normally say about a movie centered on a guy who admits to hating people and aggressively profits off of their suffering.
How Gyllenhaal manages to Lou into a crowd-pleaser is what gives Nightcrawler its hideous beauty. With his long slicked-back hair and gaunt face, Gyllenhaal's resemblance to a malnourished version of 1970s John Travolta is uncanny; meanwhile, talking about matters such as mortality and blackmail with dead eyes and clinical precision, he's one small notch above being 2001's HAL 9000. On a humorlessly rigid date, Lou matter-of-factly tells a woman, "I like the dark makeup on your face—I like the way you smell." When a sleazy rival nightcrawler— who calls others "brah," as if he's a middle-aged Jeff Spicoli—tries offering the fast-rising Lou a job on his team, Lou rejects the offer like a disinterested automaton reading from a Human Resources guidebook: "Working by myself is more in line with my skills and career goals."
As Nightcrawler progresses, Gyllenhaal introduces little wrinkles into Lou's disposition to suggest that his character is becoming wholly inhuman, a shift triggered by an out-of-nowhere and ferocious wig-out scene in which he punches a bathroom mirror into glassy rubble. But every time you're ready to condemn Lou to Hell, he lures you back onto his side through one comically maniacal monologue after another.
During the post-screening Q&A, Gyllenhaal described how he sees Lou Bloom: "I grew up in LA, so Lou, to me, is one of the coyotes who used to look at me when I passed them on the street in a car—the literal coyotes. Dan [Gilroy] and I talked about how Los Angeles is this metropolis, right? But if you look at it from space, you can see the lines of the wilderness where the animals, like those coyotes, come in from at night. Lou is one of those animals who comes out at night." Now, recall one of Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle's icy speeches: "All the animals come out at night—whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Someday a real rain will come and wash this scum off the streets."
In that respect, Nightcrawler could be considered the antithesis of Taxi Driver, transferring the POV to someone whom Travis Bickle would despise. Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom is who Bickle would see "talking" to him in that iconic mirror's reflection.
For more of Complex Pop Culture’s coverage of the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, click here.