"Nightcrawler" (2014)- Movie Review

Written and Directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed

‘A Fantastic Directorial Debut’

A director’s first film is usually not his best. Although this may only seem like an opinion, when you take into consideration most directorial debuts it is true. If you examine the careers of renowned filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese, they didn’t become the greatest directors in the world immediately. Often, it takes years of experience for a director to establish a style and make a great film. And in most cases, that career-defining film isn’t their directorial debut.

Take for example, “Reservoir Dogs”, the first feature of world-class filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. When he first arrived on the scene in 1992, Tarantino’s debut showed glimpses of a genius but was less than the sum of it’s parts. A bank robbery thriller, it is remembered today for launching the career of Tarantino as an up-and-coming director but not recognized as one of his best films to date. As Tarantino grew and evolved as a filmmaker, the quality of his movies eventually improved. It wasn’t until 1994’s “Pulp Fiction”, his third feature film, that Tarantino made a name for himself as one of the most talented directors in the world.

Every once in a blue moon, however, there have been exceptions to this trend: directors that have hit a home run on their first attempt at making a movie. Over the past decade, I’ve come across a few standout directorial debuts such as last year’s awards-contender “Whiplash” and 2013’s “The Lunchbox”. However, few if any have been as impressive as Dan Gilroy’s crime-thriller “Nightcrawler”. An intense, gripping and highly suspenseful thriller that dives deep into the mind of a psychopath, this film marks the debut of first-time filmmaker Dan Gilroy. However, what’s astonishing is that it doesn’t feel like it’s been made by a new director but rather an experienced filmmaker at the top of his craft. Despite the fact that this is only his first time behind the camera, Gilroy has impressive control over many areas ranging from the acting to the writing. Offering a talented cast of actors, gripping storytelling and a relevant message for the world we live in today, “Nightcrawler” is a nearly flawless thriller that firmly establishes Dan Gilroy as a director to be reckoned with.

Not only does this film announce the arrival of a fabulous filmmaker, but it is also proves that Jake Gyllenhaal is without a single doubt one of the finest actors of his generation. Over the last couple of years, the actor has sunk his teeth into incredibly exciting characters ranging from a determined detective in 2013’s “Prisoners” to a man with a double identity in “Enemy”. In “Nightcrawler”, he takes on a vastly different character both in appearance and personality: Lou Bloom. A stick-thin, socially awkward loner, Lou is desperately in search of a job in the dark and gloomy city of Los Angeles. When he stumbles across the world of crime journalism, which involves filming gruesome crimes for the news, his dreams are met. As he climbs the ladder of success, however, Lou goes from filming crimes as an outsider to committing them.

It soon becomes clear that Lou is neither a sensible nor thoughtful person but a twisted psychopath. As we gradually discover the darker side of his personality, we’re plunged into an intense character study that is hard to watch yet harder to look away from. “Nightcrawler” reminded me of such thrillers in the genre as “Collateral” and more recently, 2011’s “Drive”, which are both also set in L.A. Like both of those effective thrillers, Dan Gilroy’s film is shot beautifully using visually stunning cinematography. From the opening scene all the way to the end credits, this film is a treat for the eyes. The backdrop of L.A. is used to it’s full potential by the director of photography, academy-award winner Robert Elswit. Not only does his cinematography give the film a dark atmosphere, it also hooks you in as a viewer and doesn’t let go until the credits roll. From a technical point-of-view, “Nightcrawler” is truly a marvel to behold.

Yet, while director Dan Gilroy pays plenty of attention to style he doesn’t forget about delivering substance. Although “Nightcrawler” borrows ideas from films in the genre, what makes it stand out from it’s competition is the meticulous detail with which Dan Gilroy has crafted the script. Whereas “Drive” and “Collateral” are films that are mainly remembered for their style, this is one of those rare thrillers that offers engaging storytelling as well. Writer-director Dan Gilroy was nominated for an Oscar for his writing on this film, and it’s easy to see why. Not only are you engaged by the visual look of the film, but also by the odd yet intriguing characters, rat-a-tat crisp dialogue and consistently intense story. Particularly praise-worthy is how the screenwriters have brought out the personality of the lead character, Lou. Although far from a likable person, he is still one of the most fascinating characters I’ve come across in a movie in a long time.

And who could be better suited to play him than the always impressive Jake Gyllenhaal? In the kind of role that comes along only once in a lifetime, the ever-so-seasonal star delivers a mesmerizing performance that will not be forgotten in the years to come. Talk about dedicating yourself to your craft, because according to reports Gyllenhaal went through extreme lengths to bring out the character. In order to take on the stick-thin appearance of Lou, the actor lost a jaw-dropping 30 pounds. Yet, it isn’t just his weight-loss that stands out but the charisma with which Gyllenhaal brings out the character. With an intimidating presence and intense facial expressions, he makes a completely detestable and unlikable character interesting to watch. It’s not only surprising but utterly shocking that this talented actor got overlooked during the awards-season of 2014.

To match such a scenery-chewing performance is quite a daunting task, yet Rene Russo is more than up to the challenge. Although she has the less showy role than Gyllenhaal, Russo is able to stand on her own against an amazing actor and that in itself is an accomplishment. While she may not be as deserving of awards-consideration as her co-star, this old fashioned actress still gives a captivating performance without which the film wouldn’t have worked so well.

Aside from these two standout performances, the entire supporting cast is terrific. Each and every actor leaves a lasting impression, with even stars in minor roles getting their opportunity to shine. If there’s an actor who is slightly underused, however, it’s Riz Ahmed as the desperate partner in crime. While there’s no denying that Ahmed gives a believable performance, his character is given little to do. After his stunning performance two years ago in 2013’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, his acting in this film is a step down. Perhaps, adding a backstory to the character would have made his performance here much more memorable.

Another minor issue with “Nightcrawler”, that makes it fall short of being a classic, is it’s slightly rushed and unrealistic ending. After building up tension for two hours, the film all of a sudden ends in a very unsatisfying way. Not only does it leave several questions unanswered, but it also takes away from the realism of the film. It’s the kind of ending that most certainly wouldn’t take place in the world we live in today.

If you’re willing to let these problems slide, however, “Nightcrawler” is way too exciting and exhilarating of a film to miss. With a haunting score, powerful message that dares to shine light on controversial issues and perfectly paced running time of 2 hours, this is a thriller that grabs your attention from the first minute and doesn’t let go. Not only is it an entertaining thriller but also one of the most well-made directorial debuts I’ve seen in recent years.

Hats off to director Dan Gilroy for knocking it out of the park on his first film. Now, with the success of “Nightcrawler”, however, one can’t help but wonder where this director’s career will head next. I can’t wait to see the next film he directs, even though I have a feeling that he won’t be able to top this unforgettable piece of filmmaking.

4/5 stars

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