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If it’s true that we get the heroes that we deserve, then Louis Bloom may just be the quintessential hero for our modern era. Consider this: he’s fearless, driven and in a constant quest to improve his standing in life. He’s a go-getter who pulls himself up by his bootstraps, sets his sights on a goal and, through hard work and perseverance, achieves just what he sets out to do. A fierce believer in the “American Dream,” Louis is also proof-positive that said dream can, in fact, be achieved: work as hard as he does and the world is your oyster. That Louis is also an unrepentant misanthrope with such a cold, reptilian disdain for his fellow humans that he cheerfully lies, cheats and extorts them to further his own ends is of little concern: at the end of the day, the guy gets the job done, right? Isn’t that really all that matters?

Louis Bloom, as played by the increasingly impressive Jake Gyllenhaal, is the very heart and center of Dan Gilroy’s quietly stunning Nightcrawler (2014), a nocturnal trudge through the muck of Los Angeles that manages to serve as both a spiritual and logical successor to Scorsese’s untouchable Taxi Driver (1976). Part twisted love letter to the City of Angels, ala Drive (2011), part depraved character study and completely focused on the myth of the American Dream, Nightcrawler is a stunning piece of filmcraft. Decidedly old-fashioned yet never anything less than “of the moment,” Gilroy’s film holds a mirror up to modern society and asks the all-important question: “Do you like what you see?” That some folks might answer in the affirmative makes Louis Bloom as necessary today as Travis Bickle was in the ’70s.

Quite simply, Nightcrawler is the story of one man’s quest to make something of himself, by hook or by crook. We first meet Bloom as a petty thief, albeit a particularly motor-mouthed, self-assured and ruthless one. In no time, however, Louis has set his sights on a slightly more “respectable” line of work: amateur crime journalism. After getting the gist of the job from grizzled veteran Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), Bloom is up and running on his own, attracting the attention of Nina (Rene Russo), news director for a Z-grade local station. He’s so successful that even hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), although the poor guy is more of a meagerly-paid intern than an equal partner. As Louis continues to claw his way to the top of the heap, making himself a complete gadfly to the police, his rival photographers and everyone he comes into contact with, his ambitions get bigger and bigger. When the opportunity comes up for Louis to, literally, “create” the biggest story of his nascent career, our humble “hero” dives in headfirst: he’s going to be the best in the biz, regardless of who has to suffer or die in the process. After all, what’s survival of the fittest without a little collateral damage, eh?

In every way, Nightcrawler is an amazing film, as streamlined and driven as the antihero who pulls all the onscreen strings like a malevolent puppet master. It’s almost impossible for me to believe that this is actually Dan Gilroy’s debut film: prior to this, he served as screenwriter for films like Freejack (1992) (a childhood favorite), Tarsem’s quirky The Fall (2006) and The Bourne Legacy (2012). Gilroy also wrote the script, which is full of so many incredibly subtle little touches that it’s impossible to list all of the highlights. There’s a premium put on character development here, which lends a nice sense of three-dimensionality to the film: while the film’s themes and basic set-up echoes Taxi Driver in some fairly significant ways, it’s this attention to character detail that really reminds me of Scorsese’s classic.

Robert Elswit, who serves as P.T. Anderson’s resident director of photography, produces some undeniably beautiful images here: in many ways, Nightcrawler is as much about the heart and soul of Los Angeles as it is about Louis Bloom and Elswit’s gorgeous photography really drives this home. From twinkling night-time cityscapes to iconic landmarks like Laurel Canyon, L.A. has rarely looked this inviting, neon-lit pretty poison for its clusters of residents. There’s also a nicely atmospheric, subtle score by composer James Newton Howard that helps to envelop the audience in the city’s smoky mystique: everything about Nightcrawler is a fully immersive experience.

Gilroy gets some exceptionally strong performances from a very solid supporting cast, something which definitely reminded me of Taxi Driver. Riz Ahmed, who was quite good in Four Lions (2010), is equally strong here as Louis’ surrogate conscience: his character has a nicely tragic arc that serves as perfect complement to Bloom, as does his nervous, fidgety performance. Bill Paxton is pretty great as Loder: there’s nothing phoned-in about his performance and the scene where he calls Bloom a “twerp” is a particular highlight, as is the haunting bit where his staring eyes provide the loudest condemnation possible. Rene Russo, returning to dramatic roles for the first time in a decade (not counting her appearances in the Thor franchise), is quite amazing here: she really brings the character of Nina to life and her inevitable “corruption” is as painful to watch as it is foregone. Special mention must also be made of Kevin Rahm, who brings an unusual degree of nuance and depth to the character of Nina’s editor, Frank. Frank serves as the film’s sober voice of reason, standing aghast at Bloom’s increasing sociopathic tendencies, even as Nina and the others bend over backwards to accommodate him. It’s a thankless role, in many ways, but Rahm brings such a sense of nobility and moral integrity to the character that he proves integral to the film’s final destination.

As great as the rest of the cast is, however, all pale in comparison to Gyllenhaal’s stunning portrayal of the ultimate creepazoid. From his constantly shifting eyes, to his hunched body language, to the eerie half-smile that always ghosting across his lips, Louis Bloom is a thoroughly unforgettable character, brought to vibrant, unsettling life by Gyllenhaal. Similar to DeNiro’s performance as Travis Bickle, Gyllenhaal is all-in: there’s nothing about this that feels like acting…everything about Bloom feels completely, uncomfortably and terrifyingly real. Aside from one notable exception, everything about Louis Bloom is strangely serene and placid, still waters that conceal ravenous sharks. It’s an amazing performance and, quite frankly, one of the very best of the entire year. While Nightcrawler’s complete absence from the upcoming Academy Awards is a crime, Gyllenhaal’s absence from the Best Actor category is totally unfathomable: for the second time in the same year (Enemy was the first), Gyllenhaal has been snubbed. While I’ve found Gyllenhaal to be a sturdy actor ever since Donnie Darko (2001), his career choices in the 2010s have been nothing short of revelatory: at this rate, he’s going to be one of the greatest living actors in a few short years, a statement which is not hyperbolic in the slightest. If anyone still has doubts about his abilities (which no one should), his portrayal of Louis Bloom should put them to rest: his work here is just as impressive as DeNiro’s in Taxi Driver, which is certainly no small praise.

At one point in Nightcrawler, Nina tries to get Louis an entry-level job at the news station, only for him to handily turn her down: “I wanna be the guy that owns the station that owns the camera,” he tells her and it’s a sentiment that should be familiar to lots of people. After all, who among us would rather continue to run in the rat-race if we got the opportunity to call the shots? Nightcrawler is such a powerful film precisely because of the inherent dichotomy of the “American Dream”: you step on plenty of people on the way to the top of the heap, all of whom have their own needs, wants and desires. As Gilroy gradually ratchets up the tension and Louis slowly journeys from “casual observer” to “active participant,” it’s easy to get swept up in his success. After all, isn’t this what everyone really wants: to be successful at whatever they happen to be doing? By the time Louis’ actions move from “questionable” to “downright scary,” we’re already so far down the rabbit-hole that it no longer really matters: in an era where mega-corporations and the wealthy control every aspect of society, the deck is already stacked…who are we to complain when someone finds a way to win a rigged game?

One of the more interesting criticisms I’ve heard leveled at Nightcrawler is that the film refuses to take a stand on Louis Bloom: his actions are presented without condemnation or qualification, not portrayed as the true acts of evil that they really are. I would counter this by saying that, as a mirror, Nightcrawler reflects back the image of whoever happens to be watching: plenty of folks will watch Bloom’s actions and be righteously offended, recognizing him as the dangerous sociopath that he really is. For many people, there is nothing justified or good about a system that prizes naked ambition and drive over any other considerations: building your fortune on the back of your fellow-man is not only immoral but bad for humanity, in general. By his very actions, Bloom is shown to be the antithesis of community and society: if anything, he’s but one small step removed from a complete psycho like Patrick Bateman.

Some people, however, will undoubtedly watch Nightcrawler and come away with an altogether different point of view. For these people, they might recognize Bloom as the very poster child for the American Dream: here, after all, is a guy who started with nothing and ended up with everything that he wanted. He achieved these goals not through handouts or outside assistance but through his own hard work and tenacity: he earned his “degree” on the streets, not in the hallowed halls of academia. The positioning of Bloom as a fledgling small business owner, at the end, is subtle but important: for many people, this is the culmination of a dream, making Bloom something of an inspiration.

In a world where we increasingly tell ourselves that the ends do, in fact, justify the means, Dan Gilroy’s instantly classic debut stands as bracing testimonial to the dangers of said belief. We might not like what Nightcrawler has to say but we would be absolute fools to ignore it.