Movie a Day Blog finds it exciting to watch an actor shape his persona and career into something almost tangible, a way of identifying him for years or even decades to come.
Jake Gyllenhaal is beginning to do that, as evidenced by NIGHTCRAWLER (2014, Theatrical), his latest and most succesful portrayal of a modern urban Everyman: determined to be successful, living by internal mantras, and obsessed with fame, power and control, the contemporary formula for success.
In films as diverse as ZODIAC (2007), SOURCE CODE (2011), LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS (2010), END OF WATCH (2012), PRISONERS (2013) and ENEMY (2013, Movie a Day Blog 9/22/14), Gyllenhaal has established serious bonafides as an actor playing a drug salesman, a soldier, a patrol cop. a smarmy actor and his doppelganger college professor, and several variations on an obsessive cop, which he does extremely well.
NIGHTCRAWLER is the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, a successful screenwriter of high-concept Hollywood material, including THE BOURNE LEGACY (2012, Movie a Day Blog 8/23/12), but the material in NIGHTCRAWLER is not up to Gyllenhaal’s layered performance.
The topic is sensational enough. Gyllenhaal quickly sees an opportunity in the super-competitive Los Angeles local TV news business: he goes from being an industrial waste scavenger, selling copper wire and chain-link faces, to becoming a human scavenger, risking life and limb to be the first at every bloody car-crash, home invasion shooting, and drug deal gone wrong. He starts out with a Go Pro camera and graduates to high-tech equipment and multiple vans bearing his self-important logo, TV News Service.
NIGHTCRAWLER is basically the tale of Gylenhaal’s rise to prominence in his scummy field, which is nothing new — we’ve been watching sleazy urban climbers like him since THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957). Despite the best efforts of Rene Russo, in her best role in years as Gyllenhaal’s news producer and not-so-obscure object of desire, she can’t help the alternately predictable and unbelievable machinations of NIGHTCRAWLER’s plot.
What keeps one riveted to the screen is Gyllenhaal, whose character resides in some dark corner of the autism/Aspergerger’s spectrum. He’s alternately dogmatic and spontaneous, as eager to please as he is eager to dominate.
It’s the most vivid male lead performance I’ve seen this year, even more than Miles Teller in WHIPLASH (2014, review soon to come). Gyllenhaal’s face has been stripped of the baby-fat that made him look slightly ridiculous in genre crap like PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME (2010), and he is genuinely scary/creepy/compelling in NIGHTCRAWLER.
You can’t take our eyes off him when he’s on the screen, which seems to be constantly in a film that starts out taut and goes increasingly slack.
Riz Ahmed, a British actor who wrote and starred in the interesting Muslim comedy/drama FOUR LIONS (2010, Movie a Day Blog 1/7/11), adds an unexpected touch as a young homeless loser whom Gyllenhaal enlists to help him move even faster than his current breakneck speed to the next filmable tragedy.
Trying to resolve Ahmed’s fate takes Gilroy, a less experience director, into increasingly improbable territory where his heretofore careful characterizations begin to go broad.
NIGHTCRAWLERS is successful only and solely because of Gyllenhaal’s deeply disturbing portrayal of a contemporary success story, a man blind to any moral implications of his actions, his only goal to be bigger, better, more powerful. It’s a sobering tale rendered real by a gifted actor increasingly willing to take chances. This one paid off.