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Universal // R // February 10, 2015
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted February 17, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

In essence, nightcrawlers like Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) aren't terribly different from the paparazzi who stalk and photograph people of fame, the only real difference being the publicized "celebrity" they hope to capture and sell to the highest bidder. Their target just happens to be an abstract concept rather than a physical specimen, aiming to shoot the most unsettling depictions of gory and/or shocking events so that news stations can amplify their significance on their next broadcast. Violence continues to be a commodity in this sensationalist culture of ours, whether it's in fiction or real-life, and the speed in which news travels further rewards the gumption required to capture these morally icky pieces of footage. Dan Gilroy's haunting pseudo-thriller Nightcrawler isn't purely interested in the mentality of those involved with this line of business, but of a desperate individual like Bloom with the temperament to thrive in that environment when they can't elsewhere, blurring the line between capitalism and sociopathy.

We first see the eloquent, piercing-eyed Louis scraping by to survive in Los Angeles by selling illegally-obtained piecemeal metal to local construction sites, an unsettling parallel to the profession he'll soon become embroiled in. One the way home one evening, he catches glimpse of a camera operator videotaping a fiery car accident (instead of helping), sparking his curiosity into the possibilities of what that job entails. With his work prospects looking slimmer, Louis throws himself headlong into the business of being a "nightcrawler", acquiring the basic tools needed to conduct the job -- a police scanner, a camera, a navigator (Riz Ahmed) -- and learning what makes footage valuable. Getting the recording is only part of the equation, though: he also must get it to a seller as quickly as possible, thus forcing him to network and negotiate with a news-channel producer like Nina (Rene Russo). The ethical boundaries of the job might wear on some, but Louis' personality seems tailor-made to tiptoe those ambiguous lines.

Writer/director Gilroy, who spent time with real-life nightcrawlers to get a grasp on what their work really entails, carefully introduces Louis by illustrating his willingness to cross boundaries, masquerading his sociopathic tendencies as cool, articulate pragmatism. Much of this emerges in his verbalized dialogue with other people, expressing his philosophies on life -- "A friend is a gift you give yourself."; "Why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue." -- in the same way that internal commentary delivers insights to the audience, making his stances during conversations a tad incongruous and on-the-nose in expressing who is and what he's about. There's a trade-off, though, in exploring the mesmerizing state of mind that drives Louis Bloom's deviance without the ease of inner monologues: watching the metamorphosis of his moral grayness becomes an unrefined introduction to what he's capable of, feeling more as if Gilroy's showing rather than merely telling.

Jake Gyllenhaal has portrayed mentally unstable characters before, from a hallucinating teenager passionate about time-travel to a disturbed marine recruit and an obsessive homicide detective, yet none of them approach the depth of psychosis to that of Louis Bloom. Shedding nearly thirty pounds in body weight to convey the mania and sleeplessness of the character, he telegraphs a subtly fearsome performances through gaunt features and bugged-out eyes, calmly articulating Louis' methods and motivations in a compellingly no-nonsense fashion. Gyllenhaal's performance works so well because he makes that heartless candor appear so genuine and practical, revealing how Louis is capable of doing a job reliant on an absence of empathy, a sharp portrayal of a functioning psychopath who's found a way to channel his clinical persona into something lucrative. His work ethic and skill of verbal manipulation generate complex responses from his colleagues, whether it's his navigator teammate or the ethically-pliable news producer who buys his footage, and the performances never lose sight of the veracity of Bloom's persuasiveness.

At first, Nightcrawler feels more like a novel character examination that's content in simply riding the momentum of Bloom's climb up the seedy rungs, zipping through the darkened streets of L.A. hunting for prime stories in a warped success story. The workings of his self-possessed derangement might have run out of steam later on, though, without the right openings for his warped perspective to interact with real-world normalcy. Lo and behold, the beginning merely acclimates the audience to his moral fabric so they'll understand how he conducts himself when confronted with true opportunity, how he capitalizes on, even shapes, the circumstances for his benefit. Director Gilroy enters an unpredictable world once Bloom happens upon a situation beyond the depth of those with journalistic integrity, transforming the story into an excruciatingly thrilling experience complete with frenetic car chases -- including brilliant usage of a Dodge Challenger -- and livewire anticipation during a few truly unforeseeable stakeouts, photographed with mood and authenticity by action-thriller vet Robert Elswit.

There are gaps in logic built around Bloom's ability to slither away from culpability for the things he does, the ethical and legal boundaries broken to develop his prestige, but Nightcrawler's observations on entrepreneurship and the manipulation of media tend to offset those quandaries. Director Gilroy doesn't aim to preach with the content, letting the news-channel's exploitation of Bloom's footage convey its own points about the economics and veracity of sensationalism ... and the necessity of people like Bloom to escalate it. Cynicism isn't in short supply as the story takes shape, either, but that's a big part of what distinguishes this dirty neo-noir portrait: its willingness to follow Bloom into warped, dark places just to see how he gets what he wants, matching the bloodshed and misery of others with his devilish grin as he forks over everything needed to perpetuate fear in others. It's an uncompromising outlook on society, and Bloom's inability to compromise makes for an absorbing hard-boiled thriller.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Shouldn't come as a surprise that the bulk of Nightcrawler takes place throughout the streets of Los Angeles after the sun's down, rendering a rather dark and shadowy experience. That also presents a fair share of challenges for the home-video format, from heaviness of digital grain to fluctuating contrast, but Universal's 2.39:1-framed, 1080p AVC treatment is more than up to the task. While there are moments where the dimness of sequences presents details that are hard to decipher and some unsightly grain (intentional and not), the vast majority of the film relishes the complex lighting by projecting reputable fine detail and stable, visible black levels. A handful of vivid shades add spice to the film's aesthetic, from the neon lights of TV studios to sun-covered skin tones, all of which are punchy and natural. Mostly, however, the cinematography becomes a brilliant exercise in observing various states of darkness -- the cockpit of a car, a footage editing and prduction room, the dark-orange smoky backdrop of LA -- and Universal's Blu-ray weathers the lighting and detail like a pro.

What might come as a bit of a surprise is the frequently of aggressive and atmospheric sound elements present in Nightcrawler, throttling onto Blu-ray through a weighty, diverse 5.1 Master Audio track. The sound design make ample use of the kinetic Los Angeles streets, but it also nimbly replicates seaside ambience and the bustle of a broadcast newsroom, telegraphic full environmental effects through the rear channels while showing impeccable awareness of the soundtrack's consistent presence at all directions. The car chases are superb, keeping dialogue separated and razor-sharp at the front end while all channels respond to the screeching of tires and the humming of Bloom's Dodge Challenger. Slight sound touches are satisfying too, like the rotation of bike tires and the clarity of a police scanner's voice filtered through the channels static, leading through the front-end sound channels. Most of all, dialogue commands a firm, natural presence, while the thrilling score sustains a fierce lower-end pulse. Altogether, Nightctawler is a magnificent experience in HD. English, French, and Spanish subs are available alongside the sole English 5.1 track.

Special Features:

Audio Commentary with The Gilroy Brothers:
This commentary has two big plusses going for it that can be heard right off the bat: a) it's led by three individuals with a lot of experience in the industry, whose credits include The Fall, The Devil's Advocate, and Michael Clayton; and b) it's led by three talkative brothers (writer/director Dan, producer Tony, and editor John), a rapport that cannot be faked. What results is a brisk-moving, dedicated track that hits less on dissecting specific little points and more about a broad portrait of how Nightcrawler came to be. They discus Gyllenhaal's commitment to the project in great detail, mentioning the (seemingly amicable) clashes they all had over his personalized interpretation of the character, especially regarding his physical appearance (weight and hairstyle), as well as the part specifically written for Rene Russo and the significance of a montage in regards to what was left on the editing room floor. It's a highly satisfying track that's easy to get wrapped up in as the brothers touch on their collaboration.

Nightcrawler also comes with a brief If It Bleeds, It Leads: Making Nightcrawler (5:15, 16x9 HD) featurette that quickly touches on some of the conceptualization aspects of Dan Gilroy's film. While a lot of the content is better covered in the commentary, this piece does include a few quick behind-the-scenes shots and interview snippets with the brother team of "stringers" (nightcrawlers) who consulted on the film. A DVD Copy carries over both special features, while the Blu-ray also included Ultraviolet Digital Copy.

Final Thoughts:

Nightcrawler takes you into the disturbed mind of a sociopath who finds his calling by filming the misery of others and selling it to a broadcast news station, resulting in an unsettling character depiction that gets itself filthy with moral deviance ... and rewards said deviance with success. Jake Gyllenhaal transforms himself with a distressingly calm temperament as Louis Bloom, which lends a matter-of-fact strength to his manipulation, thievery, and all-around bending of boundaries. The concept potentially could've run out of steam had it not properly given his debauchery enough to do in the real world; however, writer/director Gilroy seems to understand that point as he approaches the biggest moment in Bloom's life, which twists the film into a bleak, relentless thriller with an observant madman behind the wheel. You're never certain what Bloom's capable of, or what he'll get away with, and that makes for an incredibly involving piece of character-driven suspense from a highly irregular perspective. Universal's Blu-ray looks and sounds phenomenal, and it comes with a fantastic commentary track from Dan Gilroy and his brothers. Highly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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