The hunks of North American cinema are wasting away before our rapt eyes, are going from studly, cocksure, and suave to gaunt, weird, and rickety. It's tempting to be cynical about leading men taking roles usually reserved for character actor roles as maybe a way to gain credibility, but one could also see the trend as a means of making darker, odder fare a bit more palatable for a public that's becoming increasingly interested in challenging films.
(An aside: it's likewise interesting to consider that a new generation of Hollywood blockbusters are relying on unlikely heroes, a trend kicked off with then-unhirable Robert Downey Jr. playing Iron Man and, most recently, the once-portly goof Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy - both of whom opened up slick summer explosion and tights flicks to people fed up with that junk.)
Jake Gyllenhaal isn't as established a dream boat as the recently emaciated Matthew McConaughey; his role as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler is more an oscillation back to stranger parts. In certain circles, Gyllenhaal will always be best known as the dead-eyed youngster Donnie Darko, and his fumfering squirrelyness buoyed Zodiac. Bloom is possibly one of the more complex, elusive, and repugnant characters you're likely to see on screen anytime soon - a mix of Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle and that gregarious creep from work that no one really knows anything about - but Gyllenhaal manages to cajole the viewer into liking that unlikeable leach.
There are two movies in Nightcrawler, really. There is the objective story, about a man we know nothing about stealing and bluffing his way through life, eventually stumbling onto "nightcrawling," the disaster-chasing profession of capturing footage of LAs nightly horrors for the "if it bleeds, it leads" news programs. Like backwards Spider-Mans, they descend on the scenes of crimes, sometimes ahead of the police. Wanting to get ahead, Bloom begins to venture past the already blurred moral line of nightcrawling to get to most explicit - and so most expensive - shots. That objective movie, where Bloom becomes more and more a villain, is hard to watch, would compel most viewers to believe that the world is a terrible place full of terrible people.
But there's also the subjective story, in which Bloom is the hero, rising up from nothing and becoming a success through his wit, charm, and ambition. In some ways, Nightcrawler in fact treats Bloom like the hero, conforms to Bloom's purview. Pay attention to the soundtrack, to the score, as at moments when an objective movie would be subliminally articulating the reprehensibility of Bloom's thoughts and actions, the score instead plays those moments as revelatory and triumphant. Like every character in the movie, we know that Bloom is an odd, untrustworthy person, but just as Bloom - like any good psychopath - worms his way into their favour, so does Nightcrawler tempt us to side with him.
Indeed, Dan Gilroy's directorial debut is very much concerned with the perception and presentation of reality. Bloom brings his ill-gotten footage to newsrooms desperate for ratings, certain they need to shock and scare their audience into watching their show. It's up to the editorial team to decide the most profitable version of reality to portray. What crimes and disasters to report? What broader story of the world are they trying to establish? "We like crime," explains Rene Russo's desperate news editor, "but not all crime. Urban crime. Creeping into the suburbs."
The objective opinion of the world Nightcrawler lays out is troublesome and current, and will probably come home with and gently rankle most viewers. Chances are many would steer clear if it weren't for the comfort and accessibility of having a known face, even if it is more hollow and creepy than usual. A spoon full of hunk helps the medicine go down.