Gyllenhaal finds stride in disappointing screenplay

We never really know who Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is.

Certainly, we are privy to his modest Los Angeles apartment—where he lives alone—his run-down car, and a series of concerning behaviors involving sudden acts of violence and bribery.

After the character’s unsettling introduction in “The Bourne Legacy,” screenwriter Dan Gilroy directorial debut, “Nightcrawler,” we watch as Lou takes interest in collecting video footage of local crime and selling it to a nightly news television station, confusing and enticing those around him, namely, news director Nina (Rene Russo, who happens to be Gilroy’s wife) and assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed). Though Lou’s perverse and seemingly boundless approach to his new line of work clearly points to an unhinged psyche, we are still kept at a distance from truly understanding or knowing the motivations of our antihero. “Nightcrawler[’s]” blend of tones, from the dark to the biting to the absurdly humorous, further confounds the viewer, but what results is far less transgressive than it sounds, a milquetoast debut for a long-gestating Hollywood presence like Gilroy.

Besides jarring bookending acts of violence, the film isn’t as dark as it should be—see Jody Hill’s “Observe and Report” for a similar film that more fully embraces the comedic elements a few shrewd critics have pointed out are “Nightcrawler[’s]” strongest suit. Hill takes Gilroy’s gradient heather grey to a stinging inky black. For example, I wish there had been more serious ramifications of Gyllenhaal’s exploitative boundary-trampling and accompanying inaction, especially in his first job, wherein it’s clearly communicated the injured woman he’s filming survives and gets treated for her injuries, a fact that doesn’t drive home the seriocomic severity the film needs. One wishes too that Gilroy had been more patient in surveying Lou’s unhinged condition e.g. the montage where he smashes his mirror (and reaches a pinnacle of eye-bugging) that should have been an uncomfortable and extended scene proper that lingered more introspectively on the man’s behaviors. JG is certainly up for it—he and Russo are both quite good, and I was most engaged when Gilroy let them take their dynamic to its extreme, like in their sole dinner date, probably my favorite scene.

Gyllenhaal impresses throughout, ably trafficking in his demeanor and speech patterns a practiced learnedness. We understand his behaviors, sometimes hilarious, often unsettling, as the result of a lifetime of silent observation. He spits it all back in hyper-verbal, prepackaged platitudes and artificial approximations. That said, I hate when a character with an apparent emotional disability articulates the all-too-exacting truths of a situation. It’s lazy screenwriting at best and appalling exploitation at worst. But the performer does occasionally find an emotional center in this overeagerness, locating Lou’s vulnerability in a number of scenes.

The infatuation Gilroy betrays with his roundelay of flashy, slick ’80s iconography—the bright red Mustang Lou buys offscreen, the posterized donning of his sunglasses—doesn’t mix well with the mystery the filmmaker is careful to preserve in JG for the duration of the film. This enigmatic distance that Denis Villeneuve toyed with had more success in his 2013 “Blue Velvet” riff “Prisoners” and this year’s “Enemy,” because it means we never get the sense the film exists in its lead character’s POV. Good thing the director has DP Robert Elswit to excite the aesthetic with a provocative use of close-up and barren, nighttime views of Los Angeles streets and signage, the latter choice of which injects a resonant current of loneliness to the character portraiture. James Newton Howard’s score for “Nightcrawler,” which has been fodder for some discussion and bewilderment in response to its idiosyncrasies, is mostly very good and reminds of Hans Zimmer’s work for Ritchie’s undervalued “Sherlock Holmes”(2009). Jangly and exhilaratingly weird, both evoke the industrial, which is befitting for “Holmes[’s]” turn-of-the-century tug-of-war between science and religion/fiction and “Nightcrawler[’s]” urban setting and sense of modern economic despair.

I really hope Gilroy and Elswit intended as visual gag the otherwise dumb shot of Lou visiting the set of the newscast to which he contributes and then sitting in the anchor’s chair with a face of constipated yearning. In fact, as full disclosure, on a subsequent viewing it’s possible “Nightcrawler” will foreground its comedy in a more satisfying way than I first perceived, but as it stands the film amounts to little more than wasted potential.

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