Toronto Critic's Pick: Jake Gyllenhaal Plays an Unscrupulous Newshound in the Tense Thriller 'Nightcrawler'

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Jake Gyllenhaal, having gotten the blockbuster-hero thing out of his system with 2010’s Prince of Persia, is clearly interested in exploring new acting challenges, as his turns in last year’s Prisoners and Enemy proved. In director Dan Gilroy's sleek crime-thriller, Nightcrawler, the 33-year-old star has found a role in which he can act against his good looks and buff bod. He throws himself out there and falls — until something darker and deeper kicks in.

Gyllenhaal plays unemployed Angeleno Louis Bloom, a marginal, big-eyed galoot, we first see stealing metal for cash. One night, he pulls his clunker off to the side of the freeway to gawk at a fiery crash. It’s one of those daily disasters that most commuters drive past and later watch on the local evening news. Bloom discovers the source of that TV footage: rogue stringers — called “nightcrawlers” — who roam the city, cameras in hand, after dark. It’s an “aha” moment.

Bloom steals a bike, and buys a camera and police scanner. He reinvents himself, selling his footage to a local TV news director named Nina (played terrifically by Rene Russo). And thus — in a twisted take on the American rags-to-riches story — a nightcrawler is born.

Written with a deft touch by Gilroy, who co-penned The Bourne Legacy for director-brother Tony (one of the film's producers), the tightly-framed tale delves into the same voyeuristic themes as Blow-Up and Rear Window. We are watching footage of someone capturing footage of something forbidden yet thrilling.

Drawn to carnage like viewers of the nightly news, Bloom crosses the police tape, getting a narcotic thrill from his video safaris. And then he takes his nocturnal activities to a new and dangerous place, actually staging filmable tableaux, and, later, stumbling into an apparent home invasion. He becomes an active participant in the story rather than just a passive observer.

Fast-paced, character-driven and creepy (with appropriately lurid imagery from cinematographer Robert Elswit), Nightcrawler overturns familiar LAPD car-chase clichés, while still delivering a rush. We are drawn to Bloom’s voyeurism and repelled by his actions: a tension that builds to a sickening climax. We can’t look away. 

Nightcrawler opens in theaters nationwide on Oct. 31