“Nightcrawler” is a rare instance of a mainstream film that is truly dark. Many popular films tout themselves as “dark thrillers,” but few actually live up to the descriptor. What separates “Nightcrawler” is that its darkness relies not on staging intense violence, but on portraying society’s fascination with it.

Nightcrawler

B
Rave and Quality 16
Bold Film

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, “Prisoners”) is a “nightcrawler:” a freelance crime journalist who sells his product to Los Angeles television news stations. Entirely outside moral and legal journalistic boundaries, Lou follows the LAPD into various criminal situations, including murders, car crashes, stabbings and home invasions, to market candid footage of the crimes to the local news stations. The upper management of these outlets, personified in been-around-the-block news director Nina (Rene Russo, “Thor: The Dark World”), is portrayed as shamelessly exploitative, valuing violent stories that frighten and upset their audience above legitimate journalistic enterprises simply because they boost ratings.

From the first frame when we see Lou’s face, we know there is something wrong with him. He is distant and unstable. Every word out of his mouth is a lie, a coercion or inspirational text he likely lifted from a self-help manual or an internet guide. We see him repeatedly fail to bargain with others for money or favors. He is a psychopath character, but not a smart, scheming one like “American Psycho” ’s Patrick Bateman. Lou is more like Mark Wahlberg’s wannabe extortionist character in “Pain & Gain,” an amoral, petty man with twisted ambitions. Gyllenhaal sells Lou’s socially awkward behavior from beginning to end in perhaps his most energetic and convincing performance to date.

It’s unclear, though, why Lou is willing to go to such morally reprehensible lengths to cover these stories. We are shown scenes of his engagement with petty criminal activity prior to becoming focused on “nightcrawling” but we never learn anything about his back-story. He is given no reason to “nightcrawl” other than being a greedy psycho. Gyllenhaal’s performance is nuanced enough to intrigue throughout, but a greater explanation of his motivations may have made Lou the best new character of the year. Unfortunately, Lou is merely interesting, not classic.

The supporting cast, however, lacks intrigue entirely. Nina is less an interesting character and more a plot device, and Lou’s rival (Bill Paxton, “Edge of Tomorrow”) is a one-note caricature. Lou eventually hires an assistant, a witless homeless kid named Rick (Riz Ahmed, “Ill Manors”), whose characterization takes up a large amount of screentime but never really goes anywhere. The climax of his arc is the least believable part of the movie.

Somewhat mitigating the film’s lack of character development is its excellent sense of tension. Each time Lou and Rick arrive at a new crime scene, it seems as though there are endless possibilities — will they be caught? If they are, will it be by the cops, or the criminals? What horrific act will they capture next? “Nightcrawler” has a keen understanding of these “what’s around the next corner?” thriller sensibilities. Unfortunately, this terrific tension is sometimes hampered by the film’s poor use of non-diegetic sound — its music is often strangely out of tune with what is happening onscreen. For example, it cascades bizarrely, upbeat and bouncy during an extremely dark moment early on in which Lou illegally moves a body at a crime scene for the first time. It felt strange and unintentional, certainly not purposefully ironic.

“Nightcrawler” is not nearly as effective a character drama as it clearly wants to be, but Gyllenhaal’s talent nearly transcends the superficiality of his character, and first-time director Dan Gilroy’s well-shot action sequences are brimming with drama and twisted energy.

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