A nightcrawler is not, as you might suppose, a lower form of verminous insect that comes creeping up through the cracks in the floorboards after you turn the light out. It’s a term for those members of the paparazzi who drive around LA in the small hours of the morning, listening intently to police band radio in the hope of finding some horrible disaster that they can film and then sell the footage to one of the many independent TV news stations that flourish in the area. So, the two things are pretty much in the same arena as far as appeal goes.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a mildly-spoken loner who spends his time trolling the streets, stealing scrap to sell to unscrupulous dealers, someone who thinks nothing of clubbing a security guard unconscious in order to avail himself of the man’s watch. When he chances upon a car crash, he sees Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) a dedicated nightcrawler, filming the carnage. ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ announced Loder, gleefully. When Lou subsequently overhears him making a deal to sell the resulting footage to a TV station, he thinks he’s found a new career, so much so that he hires a down-and-out called Rick (Riz Ahmed) to be his ‘assistant.’ He then locates a willing buyer for his ‘art’ in the form of Nina (Rene Russo) a TV news producer who is happy to accommodate his grisly footage and doesn’t ask too many questions about how he came by it. Then Lou becomes obsessed with getting to accident scenes before the police arrive…

Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut is a mesmerising tale of darkness and dismay, in which the only honourable characters are sidelined in favour of the kind of grotesque, venal scum that seem to be completely unhindered by any degree of humanity. Gyllenhaal, in what must rank as a career best performance (and I’m including Donny Darko and Brokeback Mountain here) somehow manages to transform himself from handsome young lead to malevolent creep, simply by losing a few pounds and slicking down his hair. Bloom is a magnificently repellant character, someone who talks in self-help video cliches, somebody who smiles sweetly but harbours, beneath his calm exterior the cold reserve of a true sociopath. Gyllenhaal manages to achieve the impossible here; you will find yourself rooting for Lou even as he makes your skin crawl.

While we’re handing out the accolades, it’s great to see Rene Russo eschewing her usual lightweight persona and firing on all cylinders as the (almost) equally repellant Nina. When she defines her ideal film clip as ‘a white woman running down the street screaming with her throat cut’ you realise that she and Lou are simply made for each other.

Gilroy handles it all effortlessly. There’s not an ounce of dead weight here and in the last fifteen minutes, when he takes us into a lengthy car chase, I very nearly forgot to breathe. The amoral conclusion is as shocking as it is inevitable, but given the kind of characters on display here, it was never going to have a Mary Poppins conclusion. Don’t miss Nightcrawler. It’s unlikely you’ll see a better film this year.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

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