Jake Gyllenhaal is brilliant in the unsettling ‘Nightcrawler’

Gyllenhaal and Russo keep their viewers scared and ill-informed.

Four stars

Nightcrawler Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed. Directed by Dan Gilroy. Rated R. Opens Friday.

About halfway through Nightcrawler, a competitor calls freelance videographer Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) a twerp, and for a while that seems like exactly what he is: awkward, naïve, annoyingly persistent. But one of the great things about Nightcrawler is the way it steadily reveals Louis as far more than your average twerp, and the way other characters dismissing him as such only strengthens his hidden dark side. As the movie opens, Louis is a loser and a loner, resorting to stealing scrap metal to make money, but even then he has a certain feral intensity lurking behind his overt, excessive friendliness. When Louis happens on a roadside accident and witnesses a pair of cameramen hustling to record the carnage, he discovers his true calling, and soon he’s chasing down grisly accidents and murders all over LA and selling the footage to Nina (Rene Russo), the desperate news director at the city’s lowest-rated TV station.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy (a journeyman screenwriter making his directorial debut) offers some biting commentary about the cynical bottom-feeders in local TV news, but Nightcrawler isn’t a heavy-handed media satire. It’s a character study about a truly reprehensible character, a grotesque parody of a corporate go-getter who speaks almost entirely in self-help platitudes, even as he’s coldly blackmailing his closest associates. Gyllenhaal gives what may be the best performance of his career as Louis, whose wide eyes and beaming smile are far more unsettling than his fixation on documenting horrific violence.

As creepy as Louis is, he’s also disturbingly funny, and Gyllenhaal plays up his comical forthrightness, especially during a nasty scene in which he “negotiates” with Nina for sexual favors in exchange for the footage she needs to boost her ratings. Even as Louis’ behavior becomes more and more twisted and unforgivable, he remains weirdly magnetic, like Tony Robbins orchestrating a murder plot. The genial sociopath is no match for the movie’s occasional voices of reason, including the meek assistant (Riz Ahmed) he gleefully manipulates. By the end, Louis has become the kind of success story he’s read about in the business tutorials he tirelessly consumes, and all he’s had to do is completely disregard the value of human life—no big deal.

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