“If you wanna’ win the lottery, you have to earn the money to buy a ticket.”

This seems to be one of the twisted inspirational lines for Lou Bloom, the central character in the debut feature of writer-turned-director Dan Gilroy (‘The Bourne Legacy’, ‘Real Steel’). Lou is an extremely driven young man who is desperate for work and is willing to put his heart and soul into whatever kind he can get his hands on. He quickly graduates from selling stolen scrap metal to capturing horrendous and graphic incidents, from car crashes to murders, that occur around Los Angeles at night and selling his footage to whichever news channel is offering the most money. As he becomes more and more involved in his newfound line of work, he begins to blur the lines between eager observer with a camera to actually becoming part of the crime which he is supposed to be merely documenting.

This stylishly made thriller is built around the central performance of Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou and boy does he shine in the role. Even though he has already shown himself a diverse and very talented actor (see our recent Take 5 feature as proof), he really outdoes himself with an outstanding performance that manages to be at once mesmerising yet disturbing, compelling yet repellent. He’s the type of guy who’s fascinating to observe but you wouldn’t necessary want to hang out with him. It’s also more than just a gimmicky body weight transformation performance; yes he looks unlike we’ve ever seen him before, gaunt and almost stretched out in appearance, but he throws himself as much into the mind-set as he does the physicality of this uniquely unsettling character, talking, as he does, almost entirely in goal-setting jargon like some sort of grotesque motivational speaker reading aloud from a CV.

It’s genuinely frightening to watch his increasing downward spiral as his obsession with his work starts to have a tighter and tighter grip on him, especially when it comes to how he exerts his perceived power and influence on his new put-upon assistant (Brit star Riz Ahmed). Things get even more disquieting when the formerly professional relationship between Lou and the newswoman (Renee Russo) to whom he sells his footage strays into unprofessional, immoral territory and eventually how he deals with competition from a rival “nightcrawler” (Bill Paxton).

The night-time LA landscape is beautifully captured on film by cinematographer Robert Elswit (‘There Will Be Blood’, ‘Magnolia’), the shrouding darkness both as a transformative agent for the city itself – places always take on a far more sinister feel under cover of darkness – and as an extension of Lou’s twisted state of mind and how he chooses to conduct himself around other people. Forget about the croaking ‘Babadook’, the ever-staring ‘Annabelle’ or that toy ‘Ouija’ board; Lou Bloom is the scariest monster of the season precisely because he’s wholly, disconcertingly believable.

‘Nightcrawler’ successfully manages to be a whole bunch of different things at once: a savage satire of the world of (specifically American) news media and the responsibility thereof, a look into the mind of a disturbed/exceptionally motivated individual (depending on your perspective), an exploration of power struggles between the genders and in job hierarchy, and the general morality of “how far is too far?” Gilroy expertly balances all these different ideas without it ever feeling like it’s trying to be too many things at once. Each theme interlocks beautifully, often scarily, with one another to make for a complex, daring cinematic experience that’s all anchored by one of the strongest performances of the year.

This review was previously published on Scotcampus.