There’s something strangely heartening about seeing an absolutely terrific film turn up almost out of nowhere, with little hype or expectation placed on it due to the filmmakers’ reputations. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, his first film behind the camera after working for decades as a jobbing screenwriter with mixed success (though he did write the insane script for The Fall and came up with the rather fun story behind the underrated Real Steel), this comes across more like the work of a master, brilliantly shot and full of so many pertinent ideas it could function as two or three separate screenplays all by itself. It’s also anchored by an outstanding central performance that is such a great combination of character work and brave choices that you know within minutes you’re looking at a new antiheroic screen icon.

This is a pitch-black satire on the nature of modern broadcasting, a socio-economic commentary of the heartless direction we’re all heading in, and an ethical nightmare which cuts as close to the bone as it humanly can without tipping over into farce. It’s a cold, dark stare into the heart of Los Angeles – as hauntingly shot here by DP Robert Elswit as it was in his Boogie Nights and Magnolia – that neatly explains why our media services are as fucked up as they are, while painting a frankly horrific character portrait of a sociopath you can’t take your eyes away from. Jake Gyllenhaal, losing a great deal of weight and looking gaunt and almost undead, is simply brilliant throughout here, as relentless as the protagonist in Drive and as methodical as the lead in The Social Network – as instantly iconic as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

There are more traditional things to enjoy too – some thrilling car chase work, a masterful control of tension and a perfectly-pitched tone are all handled so well it’s almost miraculous, given how so much American film struggles with that last point in particular. But what hits home the most is how the entire film constantly hints at horror – its title is suggestive of something that creeps in the shadows, and Gyllenhaal’s pale, drained look and his occasional flashes of a demonic interior make him seem like some sort of ghoul or vampire, almost literally sucking people’s blood to feed his unquenchable ambition. This is an extraordinary film with a nasty but irresistible sense of humour, a kind of modern classic elevated into something even better by its lead actor.

A sharp, cynical and dark-hearted satire on media culture9
A cold and nasty depiction of night-time Los Angeles9
Jake Gyllenhaal will be nominated for an Oscar10
Kind of a horror film without being a horror film9
Gyllenhaal again - he really is that fucking good here10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The female characters talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than men
Bechdel Test Failures
  • n/a
9Overall Score

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