Nightcrawler : Why Jake Gylenhaal Deserves Best Actor

Nightcrawler is not a Mystery but it is a work of LA Noir, so I ran off to watch it in the theaters because I'm writing something LA Noir and, boy, was I not disappointed. It's one of the best movies of the season and most assuredly will garner some big awards, including Best Actor for Jake Gyllenhaal whom I never cared for at the beginning of his career when he was just some pretty-boy heartthrob.

The movie hinges around Jake Gyllenhaal's creepy Louis Bloom, a typical LA loser, who can't find meaningful, sustained employment in a recovery economy sputtering back to life. We encounter him first as a thief -- someone who scavenges metal illegally -- and he transitions into a logical next step: a news cameraman.

When Bloom stumbles onto the scene of an accident, he realizes that he has the knack for breaking rules, both ethical and legal, and gets what those in the news business call a "get": he gets great footage, which he then sells to a local news station.

If you've lived in Los Angeles, you've met this kind of sleaze bag before, and pointedly snubbed him. In this sense, he is still the lowest of the low, still the scavenger that feeds from the bottom of the bottom; for in Los Angeles culture, Bloom is no different from a paparrazi, a necessary evil that exists to feed our own base appetites.

For the sake fo the movie, Jake Gyllenhaal did some things that, it seems, most leading men are doing nowadays: he lost an impressive amount of weight and basically changed his body frame. And certainly this adds to the image of the creep -- Bloom is thin-faced, sallow and shrunken and we cannot help but compare this to the strapping young man who appeared shirtless in star vehicles like Jarhead.

But in my mind, this is just a stunt.

The true genius of Gyllenhaal's character is the way that his dialog -- his narration -- is relentlessly constructed around the language of American boosterism. It is the language of Dale Carnegie, of Benjamin Franklin. It is the language of bootstrap-make-your-own-luck-American-Dreaming. If you've ever been to a real estate seminar in a convention hotel, you have probably come across this type of language. It is the language of the weekend retreat. It is the language crafted out of Styrofoam for any purpose, for every corporate need. It is the verbal equivalent of a spork.

From a craft point of view, the language does two very important things: first, it is almost the soundtrack to the movie, the rambling voice. But there is also something paradoxical about the voice that is pure genius: because it is quite deliberately constructed to conform to the same formula, it is also entirely easy to tune out. It becomes the white noise -- the Doppler swish of a trash truck in the early morning. And the movie becomes less of a talkie and more of a silent movie. Gylenhaal's movements take on the exaggerated expressiveness of a pantomime. And pantomimes are truly scary things.

The second work that this kind of dialogue does is that it performs the work of satire -- it implodes with each repetition, becoming hollow. Gyllenhaal is an anti-hero and his own adaptation of the language of unpaid internships and corporate rise rings hollow, especially during this very specific economic moment when the economy staggers and everybody buckles under to the demands that we work for less or, even, work for free.

The genius in the construction of the dialogue is that it is both difficult and easy to pull off. It is easy because, once you have made a decision that a character talk like this, the character will always talk like this. But it is hard, too, because that kind of uniformity of speech can become tiresome if not pulled off with enough panache. And you won't know exactly how tiresome it is until you have written half the script and decided that you hate the speech of your central character.

Even after the script is written, there is the matter of simple performance. And this is why Jake Gyllenhaal deserves a Best Actor for this foray into LA Noir. Gyllenhaal has performed some amazing work, not by losing a bunch of weight, but by actually making a flat character believable as a leading man. He has achieved that rarity -- making a caricature into a person who speaks to the moment we live in in all its sweet savagery.