Back in 2014, there was a brief period of time when Jake Gyllenhaal was the guy. If you take a look at his IMDB profile, you’ll see exactly what I mean. Of course, he wasn’t the biggest movie star of the year, or even the surrounding years—that probably goes to Leonardo DiCaprio for his run of Django Unchained, The Great Gatsby, and The Wolf of Wall Street during the span of three years starting in 2012—but he might have been the best. And not just the best in the broad sense of the word, but the best at choosing the most intriguing projects that led him to star in some downright incredible films, a talent that often goes unrecognized!
Talking about his back-to-back unreal run of Detective Loki in Prisoners (one of the greatest films of all time, trust me!) and both Adam & Anthony in Enemy in 2013 is a conversation for another time. So is the fact that both of those films are directed by Denis Villeneuve! Like, come on, man. But what is a conversation for right now is how unhinged, razor-sharp, and underrated his 2014 film Nightcrawler is.
*Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for Nightcrawler*
Nightcrawler falls under the radar
In an age of movies like Tár and Whiplash—two of the most exquisite and iconic films about the cost of greatness and the steep, slippery climb to the top of whatever ladder leads there—Nightcrawler easily falls to the wayside. It isn’t made by a flashy director like Damien Chazelle. It doesn’t have an “army” of dedicated fans behind it, as Tár does with its “Tármy”.
Yet, it aims to search our souls in the same way. It asks the same questions: What is the cost of achieving your dream? How far are you willing to go to get there? And are family, friends, and the vast world that surrounds you just stepping stones in getting to the pedestal of unmatched legacy? Questions as old as time that, no matter how many times they are shown on the silver screen, still resonate deeply with our being.
Maybe it’s because we secretly wish we could follow a similar path. Maybe it’s because we all inherently believe in the arrival fallacy on some animalistic level. Or maybe it’s because the people embarking on such journeys represent a deeply magnetic and fascinating viewpoint on life that bridges the gap between viewer and character, real life, and a can’t-be-real movie life—as Jake Gyllenhaal does with his character Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s animalistic performance in Nightcrawler
The story of a slightly off-kilter, corporate-lingo-obsessed, coyote of a man pursuing the deep, dark nighttime underbelly of Los Angeles to become the most sought after stringer kind of makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up in a way that is almost impossible to put your finger on.
Could I do what he is doing? Could I be courted by the flirtatious mysteries of the night? Or is Lou, the antihero that is so easy to root for, really just the physical embodiment of the corporate culture and mindset that plagues nearly everyone in some fashion, eating at their empathy for the human soul? Nightcrawler doesn’t answer those questions, but dammit if it doesn’t pose them in a deeply seductive, maniacal way.
The neo-noir thriller has stripes of Jordan Peele’s most recent film, Nope, as well. Society’s obsession with content and being recognized (at the very least seen) by the masses is a trope that has always been and will always be. In a world of TikTok and YouTube Shorts, this is the real stuff. Fame versus morality. Of course, Nope and Nightcrawler aren’t super similar, but they both offer room to think about the society we live in and what people value most in that society. And they both start with the letter N. So that’s pretty cool.
Back to the point of Jake Gyllenhaal being the guy and this movie proving why. There are several instances in this film—and if you’ve seen it, you’ll know exactly the moments that I’m talking about—where Jake enters this unidentified zone of acting and truly living. A cross between the deranged and the charming, the unhinged and the utterly helpful.
One of the more popular of these moments is constantly used as a meme in conversations, social media sites, and especially texts to my wife. She doesn’t get the reference, but I do, and that’s what matters. The smile. That iconic, contagious, and enigmatic smile of Jake’s is what makes this movie. It should honestly be credited on IMDB as its own character. It’s what determines, with little else surrounding it, that this movie could be argued as Jake Gyllenhaal’s best to date.
Somehow, even after he watches a robbery and a triple murder take place—and films it for a news station without actually trying to help the situation—you are drawn back in to continue your pursuit of hoping that the news station buys his clip for a ton of money. That Lou sees the success he’s been chasing at the end of the day, even if it is dirty, icky, and covered in morally questionable decisions. The smile grips you and tells you to join the rest of the journey.
In ways really only seen in a Michael Mann movie (I’m looking at you Heat, my darling), the presence of Los Angeles is defined. Daring. Delicious. A character in and of itself, the movie travels the vast expanse of the “City of Stars” by night, creating an even more mythical beast at the center of the film. A city that is crucial in telling the story of the endearing dreams of a demented man. A city that, at its core, stands to reward those who play the game, learn along the way, and evolve into what is needed to feed the beast.
That, along with a striking score and a razor-sharp script, boost Jake Gyllenhaal’s ability to fully entrance the audience. He uses phrases that gloss your ears in a Corporate America-scented wax, only for the humanity of characters like Nina (Rene Russo) and Rick (Riz Ahmed) to slowly melt it away, so you can hear the sickly truth of Jake’s character.
It did get an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and there’s a reason for that. Does that make it “rated?” Not to me. That’s not good enough. Not to mention, any time you can hear Bill Paxton call Jake Gyllenhaal “brah”—multiple times, keep in mind!—then the movie automatically catches an extra W.
Nightcrawler might be one of the most underrated movies of the past decade
Now, it’s perfectly okay if you don’t think Nightcrawler warrants an argument as one of the most underrated movies of the past ten years (it seems that Nick G and his teammate Benny passed out after the first five minutes), or one of the best directorial debuts of all time (my list includes Jonah Hill for mid90s, Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird, Dan Gilroy for the project we’re discussing, and of course the likes of Orson Welles for Citizen Kane and Quentin Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs); but what you cannot deny is how unnervingly riveting it is.
It’s got a truly awesome car chase scene, a jaw-on-the-floor type ending that still shocks me upon every rewatch, and some insanely hilarious one-liners from Riz Ahmed. It’s also under two hours! 117 minutes to be exact. And that is just another check in the “wins” column for this film.
While your mileage may vary with how deeply you want, or choose, to read into Nightcrawler, it is not a stretch to say this movie is the perfect dose of Jake Gyllenhaal. Unhinged in all the right ways.
Charming, funny, and just plain weird, I relate this Jake Gyllenhaal character most closely with his character of Danny Sharp in Michael Bay’s heater of a movie Ambulance (one of the best movies of 2022, but again, a conversation for another time). So buckle up, get ready to ride around the city snagging grotesque footage, and let the absolutely unbelievable Jake Gyllenhaal/Nightcrawler effect wash over you.
Stay tuned to Agents of Fandom for more Monday Movie Club!