As Louis Bloom, the dangerously enterprising young man at the center of Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal sports an unnerving new look. He reportedly lost 20 pounds (from an already wiry frame) for the role, but it doesn’t make him appear skeletal (à la, say, Christian Bale in The Machinist) so much as—to borrow a phrase from an early Fall single—totally wired. His eyes pop out of his gaunt face, making it seem as if he’s leaning forward, intruding into someone’s personal space, even when he’s standing completely still. Not that Louis often stands still, mind you. Nightcrawler is a portrait of an amoral opportunist who stumbles upon his horrible calling, and the film’s chief pleasure is watching Gyllenhaal portray what it might be like if Rushmore’s Max Fischer grew up to become Chuck Tatum, the unscrupulous reporter played by Kirk Douglas in Billy Wilder’s scabrous Ace In The Hole. It’s adolescent solipsism gone grotesquely rancid.

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When Nightcrawler begins, Louis is struggling to make a meager living by stealing and reselling scrap metal, a hustle that sometimes requires him to coldcock security guards. One fateful night, however, he stumbles onto a crime scene and witnesses TV-news reporters hovering over the carnage like vultures with cameras. After pestering one of them, Joe (Bill Paxton), for details about his sleazy profession—nightcrawlers are freelance crews competing for the grisliest footage of wee-hours blood ’n’ guts—Louis immediately goes into business for himself, buying equipment and hiring a clueless intern (Riz Ahmed) to help him out. His tirelessness and ambition—combined with blatant disregard for the law, professional ethics, and common decency—land him a working relationship with the news director (Rene Russo) of a low-rated L.A. station, which he parlays into sexual blackmail. And before long, merely looking for tragedy isn’t enough for Louis, who decides the smartest career move would be to manufacture some carnage of his own.

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy (brother of Tony Gilroy, the auteur behind Michael Clayton and Duplicity), Nightcrawler pushes its cynicism about ratings-hungry news outlets so hard that it frequently crosses the line into overly blunt caricature. Unlike Network, which has often been similarly criticized, Louis’ rise up the ranks of bottom-feeders doesn’t function as black comedy—when Russo’s Faye Dunaway-style career woman candidly informs Louis that she’s looking for stories that will reinforce affluent white viewers’ fear of minorities, she comes across as just repulsively pragmatic rather than grandiosely inhuman. Toward the end, Gilroy loses faith in the audience’s intelligence and starts clonking us on the head, writing dialogue that doubles as a thesis statement and engineering Louis’ behavior in ways that serve the message instead of the story. It’s as if Tatum had graduated from keeping some poor slob trapped in a cave (so he can milk the story) to pushing people down mine shafts.

All the same, Nightcrawler is well worth seeing just for Gyllenhaal’s spectacularly creepy performance. Blinking as little as possible and speaking every line with robotic conviction, he makes Louis the sort of person who discovered early in life that it’s possible to get away with nearly anything so long as one couches one’s words in the right tone, except that he has a truly warped notion of what the right tone is. Even the most obnoxiously persistent door-to-door salesmen have nothing on this guy, who treats everybody he encounters as an obstacle to be politely mowed down with bland verbiage derived from corporate jargon. It’s a mesmerizing turn from an actor who, while frequently quite good, has never really had a breakout role until now—overshadowed by Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain, too (appropriately) recessive to be iconic in Donnie Darko or Zodiac, already forgotten in Prince Of Persia. Nightcrawler gives him a chance to make a lasting impression, and he takes full, fanatical advantage.

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