It’s been a long year, friends. We are near its conclusion and we all hope you’re staying sane, safe and well out there. To even the most casual Midwest Film Journal reader, it will be no surprise that we love puns around here almost as much as we love thoughtful, entertaining criticism and monthlong series that can highlight some of our favorite creators and creations. We thank you for another great year with us here at MFJ. So in that spirit that we hope makes you smile, our December ode to one of our favorite sibling duos: Deck the Gyllenhaals.

Jake Gyllenhaal is weird AF and oh so pretty.

His oeuvre runs from Donnie Darko to Morf Vandewalt and is rife with neurotic, awkward, brooding characters. It’s certain that he’ll play his Sam Halls and Robert Graysmiths, but even those seem dark and mysterious in some ways. He’s so good at this type that it’s almost odd to see him so naturally goofing with Ryan Reynolds in an interview. Then you remember he played in shit like Bubble Boy and literally two seconds of a Lonely Island music video.

Ah, Jake being Jake.

I hadn’t paid too much attention to Gyllenhaal’s work. I saw The Day After Tomorrow in theaters, but that’s because I was absolutely in love with Emmy Rossum. I didn’t watch Donnie Darko until college. Gyllenhaal always struck me as the Sam Worthington or Dave Franco-type. Handsome, recognizable enough, but entirely forgettable. His turn on Donnie was fine, but I discarded it as an easier role for a twentysomething to pull off. I watched Nightcrawler only when Netflix started streaming it and I had heard some good things, but I still had middling expectations.

As much as I love Secretary, Nightcrawler is really what made me pitch Deck The Gyllenhaals in the first place. Why? It was the film that opened me up to actually seeking out Gyllenhaal’s work. He nails that type at which he’s so great. The type, in this case, being utter sociopath Louis Bloom.

I’ve always found something special about driving around at night. It’s a little lonesome, but the world is quieter. Nighttime is always nice for an evening walk where you can unpack your thoughts, but driving on nearly abandoned highways that are usually filled to bursting with cars hits a surreal chord. What is usually bustling is still. It’s almost like seeing something you feel like you’re not supposed to see. You’re backstage without a pass. The lights of night are different, too. They aren’t the harsh fluorescents of our offices and schools. They’re the safe and hushed streetlights of tree-lined avenues, the energetic and flashing neon tubes of bars and clubs, and even the dazzling twinkles of carnival cabochons.

Night is ripe for symbolism. It brings with it meanings of endings, secrecy, death. But it’s the strangeness for me. It’s the staying up late talking with your crush and finding out everything about them. It’s the watching obscure animes at 3 a.m. It’s walking on the knife’s edge of sleep and constantly wondering if what you saw and what you felt were truly real and really true. I recall movies like 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead that are able to give this feeling of untethered experience.

This is the space Lou Bloom occupies, wedded with other bedfellows like murders and car wrecks — things from which we sometimes cannot tear our eyes away. Monsters come out at night, and Bloom, bespectacled with sunglasses when forced out into the daylight, is a particular species.

Gyllenhaal is naturally charming. He has a quirky sense of humor. That embrace of quirkiness feeds into the charm. The charm feeds into the quirkiness. It creates the perfect ouroboros that wins one friends and influences people. I don’t think Lou Bloom could have been played by many people because the trick to the character is for the viewer to be unsettled as the actor harnesses a sort of un-charm. (Penn Badgly’s portrayal as Joe Goldberg in You is the only one that seems done more exceptionally.)

This is Ted Bundy territory. Let’s get this really charming and handsome guy, and let’s have him do really charming and handsome things, but let’s have him play it in such an uncanny-valley way that the red flags in people’s minds look like a semaphore convention.

This is such an incredibly difficult needle to thread, but Gyllenhaal does it perfectly on all counts. His handsome face is gaunt and masklike, devoid of emotion most of the time. He lost 20 pounds for the role in order to play Bloom as a “hungry coyote,” sometimes exercising for eight hours a day. There is a hunger there, but more importantly it makes him so devoid of warmth. These big, sad-dog eyes that can project innocence here are bug-eyed, expressionless or filled only with self-preservation. When he does decide to convey emotion, the manic, menacing vengeance is amplified. (I think it’s the eyebrows. Power lies in the eyebrows. Just ask Eugene Levy.)

Bloom’s unnatural smile is a case study for this. It’s obvious he can smile. It’s 1,000 watts. But to give this subdued “I’m smiling because I’m supposed to smile” grin — to make it seem real and false all at the same time — to chuckle in a nervous “Oh, you got me” way before violently subduing someone — hits all those times we talk about having a gut feeling about a person. Lou Bloom is to be avoided.

If Nightcrawler were just Jake being Jake, giving him some free rein to just be weird, it’d probably turn into another Velvet Buzzsaw. It would prove again that Gyllenhaal is quite a good actor, but there wouldn’t be much else to say. What I think is powerful about Nightcrawler, though, is that for almost every negative beat Bloom puts forth, it’s mirrored back by news producer Nina (played by Rene Russo) or fellow nightcrawler Joe (played by the late Bill Paxton).

Lou Bloom is this sociopathic Peter Parker who starts concocting these sensational situations for which he can be the first on the scene. But that’s only because he sees the opportunity for it. If the scrap-metal yard had hired him, he’d have taken that path, too, and maybe he would have stuck to simple theft. Nina and Joe, however, give him this permission to profit off of misery. The scrap-metal yard didn’t want or need him for anything. But Nina and Joe can’t avoid him because to do so would mean to fail at another aspect that is important to them.

Outside of not knowing what happens to the security guard in the opening scene, how is Bloom’s story so different from the myths we tell of savvy businesspeople? How are Nina and Joe so much different from Bloom? Other than, perhaps, degrees. Nina says at the end: “I think Lou is inspiring all of us to reach a little higher.”

Just imagine a motivational speaker: “I started with nothing. I had nothing but a low-budget camera and a laptop. I only had that because I stole a bike to pay for it. I kept filming dumb stuff, too, because I didn’t know the police codes I heard on the scanner. No one was going to pay me for filming someone getting arrested for a DUI. *laughs* But I was determined. I studied those codes night and day. I hired my first employee, too, but I told him I needed to call him an intern because I couldn’t afford anything else. I said I needed to fill a gap from losing another employee, but you say what you need to in those situations. He was a great employee, too! We started getting the shots. We started making money. Had folks try to buy us out. But we made it. Sometimes you need to get creative, folks, but take risks and it’ll pay off. Now I got a fleet of vans and no competition! The secret is that I was always willing to go where no one else would go. And I would never ask an employee to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself … but I believe you do what it takes to be successful.”

People can find these stories inspiring when told by the right person the right way. Nightcrawler has the presence of mind to point out that they shouldn’t be. Bloom, this awkward character who would find a home in Arendt’s The Banality of Evil, shouldn’t be someone able to manufacture such success. But he succeeds a lot, and the implication is that he isn’t the only one. He introduces himself as someone who runs a successful TV news business (dress for the job you want!), forces Nina to introduce him to playmakers (networking!) and gives her a Harvey Weinstein-esque ultimatum to either sleep with him or lose his footage during sweeps week (never take no for an answer!).

I don’t think that movies can necessarily be distilled into one scene, but if you were to look for the Big Idea™ of Nightcrawler, you’d find it when Bloom coerces Nina into a dinner date. He has been direct about wanting to start a relationship with her but Nina continues to try to diplomatically remove herself. “I hope you find someone,” she says, to which Bloom replies, “I’m pretty sure I already have.”

He has done his study, which is always important in business. He knows the value of what he’s selling. Crime rates are going down, but they’re important for ratings. He wants to leverage this to his material advantage.

“I want that. With you. Like you want to keep your job and your health insurance,” he says, underlining the new American Dream.

“Look,” Nina replies, shooting back with bravado. “Just for starters, I don’t need you to keep my fucking job.”

“You’re the news director on the vampire shift of the lowest-rated station in Los Angeles. We have what could be considered an almost exclusive relationship. There are many other places I could go. I have to think that you’re invested in this transaction.”

She tries to buy him off with a retainer or a production assistant job. He gives his fake laugh. “You’re not listening, Nina.”

“You’re threatening.”

“I’m negotiating.”

Haven’t we heard the spirit of this exchange and “advice” in our job hunts and our careers? It’s not personal. It’s business. Let us remove the compassion and see what’s left over. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.

We’re not supposed to be rooting for this guy, but this is the story of American success told to us every day. Nightcrawler puts that definition of success under bright lights, and the viewer should be left wondering: How many Lou Blooms are out there? How many are out there that we are told to admire?

It’s true. Many of those successful people aren’t out moving a body at a crash or evidence at a crime scene to get the most poetic shot — to profit the most off of misery and sensationalism. But how much have we seen of wanting to accentuate “suburban crime”? Who do we hear when Bloom says, as he stands over his dying assistant, “I cannot jeopardize my company’s success to retain an untrustworthy employee”? How often do we get the sense that there are plenty of people like Nina, who sees the blood on Bloom’s clothes and decides to accept his excuse for it because it is advantageous?

As Rick the assistant would say, some of us “got a weird ass way of looking at shit.”