I love an acting-career comeback, especially for someone as deserving as Jake Gyllenhaal. His role as a creepy Los Angeles crime videographer in Nightcrawler, following his tattooed detective in Prisoners last year, signals a career revival that could be the next McConaissance.
Jake's career is clearly going in a different direction than it was just a few years ago. He's moving away from Prince of Persia towards nuanced roles as neo-noir detectives and creeps. The new trajectory can trace its beginnings back to the Los Angeles cop drama End of Watch, directed by Fury director David Ayers, where Jake was able to start shaping real characters again. He displayed some of his natural charm and wit in the car conversations with Michael Pena, conversations that are the anti–True Detective car scenes—the men talk about life issues and tell jokes instead of discussing Frederich Nietzsche and yellow kings.
In End of Watch and Prisoners, Jake played his characters of the night with specificity and veracity. He brings that same quality to Nightcrawler, where he portrays a slimy loner in the mold of Travis Bickle who becomes the premier documenter of Los Angeles crime.
His new roles, when presented together, show that Gyllenhaal is indeed back and he has no qualms about crawling in the dirt for his characters. He is no longer interested in pretty-boy commercial silliness. His choice of roles is precise, unconventional, and daring.
So what's so good about the character he plays in Nightcrawler? First, Jake lost the weight. He looks so thin and hunched he's like something out of Nosferatu, with a wicked grin always ready to curl up. Second, the hair—it's long, but not so long that it can be put into a regular ponytail. The best he can do is a pathetic little samurai tail, something he does when he wants to get down to serious business.
The isolation is part of the character, and it defines him. He has no meaningful relationships, so the work becomes his only concern. He is obsessed with work because it is the one thing that he can do well. He has no one else in his life he cares for, unless you count Rene Russo's character, the television producer who buys his material.
His skills as a crime videographer empowers him in ways that nothing else can. The shocking news footage he captures on video are the best of their kind, partly because he manipulates crime scenes and goes into places he's not supposed to.
His work is reality television's revenge on the movie business. The tools of the entertainment industry are taken out at night and used for a different kind of entertainment. We want to watch horror when it's on a screen, regardless of it being fact or fiction. And it's more interesting when it's real.
This is the movie that captures the psyche of the paparazzo dorks who stalk stars—subterranean hunters who, armed with their precious cameras, turn citizens into prey. It shows how easy it is to dehumanize your subject when you're looking at them from the other side of a lens.
This movie also captures our desire to look. We want to look at the car accidents, to rubberneck. Like porn stars who aren't given mainstream credit, even though so many people watch porn, Jake's nightcrawler creature exists because the demand is there. He's going to keep crawling though all our nasty business because we keep watching.