"Nightcrawler" is the kind of film that will catch audiences by surprise with its painstaking thoughtfulness, and features the kind of lead character that will be discussed in film circles who don't detest American cinema and actually give it the benefit of the doubt. The film plunges us into the dark, seedy world of a nightcrawler, somebody who, often working freelance with his or her own equipment and schedule, patrols the streets of crowded cities with multiple police scanners searching for recently-committed crimes in the neighborhood, like rape, shootings, murders, car accidents, and so forth. The object of a nightcrawler is to get candid and intimate shots of the ugliness that plagues these scenarios as quickly and as neatly as possible and sell them to news stations or eyewitness programs to turn quick profit. Job requirements include possible insomniac, lack of emotional connection or any immediate empathy to tragedy or horror, exceptional navigational/driving skills, and a load of free time.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a man at rock-bottom living in Los Angeles, selling scrap metal to get money before eventually turning to the nightcrawling business. He teams up with Rick (Riz Ahmed), a young man desperate to make money to keep a roof over his head, who helps navigate Lou's routes as a nightcrawler and learns of numerous police codes to help Lou decipher the police scanner jargon. Together, the two make for an amateur nightcrawling team, turning profit by selling the footage – expertly shot, analyzed, and even occasionally manipulated by Lou – to Nina (Rene Russo), the station manager of a severely failing news station that is in dire need to regain viewership.
Ultimately, "Nightcrawler" juggles two tricky but immersing features with its material, simultaneously giving us a look into a grimy and often dirty gig as somebody who is essentially a voyeur into the most vulnerable time of the people he meets and posing frightening commentary on contemporary news. The nightcrawler is not looking to help or to provide encouragement; he's there to get his shots and move on, hoping to turn as large of a profit as he can. We see Los Angeles in the light of what could be classifiable as a contemporary film noir, in dark, sometimes shadowy-photography and dingy environments that reveal an ugliness to a city that is normally captured as very beautiful and ideal in terms of climate. Director Dan Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit (a frequent collaborator of Paul Thomas Anderson) do everything in their power to subvert our ideas of Los Angeles and focus on transitory locations that show the ugliest of human events in such a way that is beautiful and captivating thanks to crystal-clear photography.
The other feature "Nightcrawler" toys with is the contemporary exploration of journalistic ethics and how, with local cable news competing with so many twenty-four hour news stations, who, in turn, are also battling more rapidly-updated social media websites, the manipulation of news is ever-present on Television. News programs, like sitcoms, reality shows, and sports events, are a game of numbers and those numbers are ratings – something that "Nightcrawler" makes depressingly clear to us. A crucial scene to this message comes into play when Lou has shot and sold the defining tape of his career and has worked to manipulate it for personal gain. He watches as Nina plays the tape on the air, directing the news anchors in such a specific way in terms of language and mannerisms that we see the fear-mongering happen right before our eyes.
On top of all the social commentary, we see amazingly realistic crime scenes and car accidents to boot. Perhaps it's the lack of intimacy many directors lend to these situations, often showing a car accident, and characters limping and trudging along with little bloodshed, but "Nightcrawler" details these scenes with an incredible eye for attention and realism. Gilroy makes us the voyeur and gives the window into these car accidents that we glance over to see but not entirely anticipate or really want to see. The attention to detail in these seems is simply exquisite and uncommonly believable.
"Nightcrawler," in addition, features a wonderful performance by Gyllenhaal who, like his co-star Paul Dano in "Prisoners," plays detached and empty with such conviction, and channels something of an inner-Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Owning Mahowny," showing his character's complete fulfillment when obsessing over his job and his work. Even Riz Ahmed shouldn't be overlooked here, playing the overworked and under-appreciated assistant to Gyllenhaal's Lou in a role that could've been an empty, and even distracting, side role. The entire project is rich in commentary, performances, and environmental beauty that it was easily one of the most complete films of the 2014.