The preternaturally calm protagonist of Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler offers a striking contrast to the manic energy of Steve, the teenage lead in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. Played by a gaunt, baggy-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal, looking a few years of heavy smoking away from turning into Willem Defoe, Lou Bloom is the kind of quirky, attention-drawing character on which a film places all its bets. In this case, the gambit isn’t entirely successful, but Gilroy does a fantastic job at first of drawing out Lou’s eccentricities.
Nightcrawler’s opening scene presents Lou’s dark-side quickly as we watch him beat up a cop after getting caught clipping fence wire and stealing other valuable metals. But most of Lou’s subsequent interactions trying to sell these stolen goods show him to be socially inept and fairly clueless. The combination leaves you uneasy. In a darker film, Lou’s insistence on engaging the world head on even as everyone around him seems to bat him away like an awkward fly would send him on a killing spree. Nightcrawler prefers to imagine a world that makes space for Lou, a prospect that’s less immediately disturbing, but ultimately still unnerving to watch.
Lou finds a perfect career for someone who’s over-eager and lacks all sense social decency: the local news. After stopping to look at a car crash and seeing a freelance cameraman capture footage to sell to local stations, Lou buys a cheap digital camcorder and a police radio scanner and begins nightcrawling—waiting for news of a break in, murder, or crash, then rushing to the scene in order to be the first to capture it on video. Lou’s competitive advantage is his lack of qualms about pulling in close for the bloodiest image or breaking into a victim’s home to get a shot of family photos on the fridge. And eventually, Lou finds a perfect partner for his work: Nina (Rene Russo), a news director for a local TV station who’s desperate enough for viewers to dispense with the ethical questions raised by Lou’s work.
Nightcrawler lives by Gyllenhaal’s great performance, but it dies by the limits of his character. Lou’s unwavering serenity and mastery of management give him a very particular creepiness, but the effect dulls with overexposure. And apart from its character study, the film includes little else of particular novelty to focus on. Gilroy tries to construct a social satire, but his targets—the falsity of business jargon and the ethics of “if it bleeds it leads” news—are old-hat. There are hints of some more modern elements, including a few jokes linking Lou’s behavior to millennial kids weaned on too much self-esteem, but the film’s themes largely feel pulled from the ’80s, not as homage, but as outdated media criticism.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 4—14.