Skip to content

In 'Nightcrawler,' Jake Gyllenhaal Sells His Soul to the Lowest Bidder

Just in time for Halloween: A movie that makes your skin crawl

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 57 minutes

Stars: Riz Ahmed, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Paxton, Rene Russo

Director: Dan Gilroy

It's fitting that Open Road Films plans to release Nightcrawler on Halloween.

A ghoulish, stomach-turning satire about the sensationalism that infects today's television news, the film is propelled by an amazing performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. The actor has dabbled with the macabre ever since Donnie Darko (2001), but in the last couple of years, he has tackled ever darker and more complex roles. (Detective Loki in 2013's Prisoners comes to mind, but let's not overlook End of Watch or Enemy.) In Nightcrawler he's a psychopath with gaunt cheeks, sallow skin and bulging eyes. Any similarity to a creature from the dead is purely intentional.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo Star in Nightcrawler.

Open Road Films

Jake Gyllenhaal in “Nightcrawler” supplies Rene Russo with an uninterrupted supply of gory film footage.

Set in a gritty, Chandleresque Los Angeles, Nightcrawler is the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, who wrote The Bourne Legacy. Gilroy's script here is, in the end, an examination of our prurient desire to watch others suffer. ("If it bleeds, it leads," says one character.) Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a down-on-his-luck, unhinged recluse who steals scrap metal (including manhole covers) to sell for cash.

Aimlessly cruising the city's freeways late one night, Bloom pulls over to watch two highway patrolmen drag a critically injured woman from her crashed car. Already on the scene — and shamelessly filming the events as they unfold — is veteran paparazzo Joe Loder (Bill Paxton of Titanic and Apollo 13). As Loder's camera rolls, Bloom concludes that grisly video footage might be easier to hawk than purloined copper wire.

Selling his bike for a handheld video camera and a police scanner, Bloom is encouraged in his new career by Nina Romina, a cynical late-night news director (Rene Russo). Nina's ideal subject, she explains, is an upscale victim — a screaming white woman who's, say, "running down the street with her throat cut." For that she'll pay big bucks.

Spewing marketing jargon like the natural-born leader of a sales team, Bloom promotes his driver, Rick (an excellent Riz Ahmed of The Reluctant Fundamentalist), to "executive VP." He also convinces Rick that entering the scene of a home invasion-turned-double murder or moving the body of a carjacking victim for a better camera angle — all before the police arrive — is neither criminal nor unethical. For Bloom, it's all in the service of his entrepreneurial "TV news business." He even coerces Nina (who's desperate to keep her job) into exchanging sex for an uninterrupted supply of gory film footage.

In an era when most movies are produced entirely on video, photography director Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) has made the proceedings even more realistic by shooting much of Nightcrawler on film. Only when Bloom sinks lower than a vulture pecking roadkill to get the goods does Nightcrawler stretch credulity. Across the board, however, every performance here qualifies as a minor masterpiece of irony, and the movie's message will keep you and your seatmates talking long into the night.

And what better eve than All Hallow's to watch someone sell his soul?

Meg Grant is West Coast editor of AARP The Magazine.