In “Nightcrawler,” Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, an aimless Los Angeles misanthrope who finds the perfect gig: freelance TV news photographer on the vampire shift, capturing the nocturnal horrors that lead the morning.
Mr. Gyllenhaal looks more than a little like a vampire himself, with his bugged-out eyes, his slicked-back midnight hair, and his sharply angled facial features, as if too-little skin has been stretched around too much skull.
He rarely blinks, and when he smiles, or scowls, or expresses anything with his face at all, it has the feel of a too-well practiced maneuver, a simulacra of emotion rather than the real thing.
Mr. Gyllenhaal’s Bloom is the heart and soul of “Nightcrawler,” which is to say that it hasn’t got one. Instead, it is fascinatingly empty — a dark, shocking, bitingly funny profile of a person who is not really a person.
Bloom is an anti-hero in the tradition of both Patrick Bateman in “American Pyscho” and Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” a movie that “Nightcrawler” coyly references in its opening moments.
But writer-director Dan Gilroy gives Bloom’s alienation a distinctly modern twist: Instead of learning by watching and imitating, he studies by using the Internet.
Bloom is an information-age autodidact who spends his hours consuming online research about everything from stolen bikes to the professional histories of those he works with, memorizing and internalizing it all. He is a fully self-Googled creature; he knows everything there is to know, except how to be human.
That’s not a bad thing for a local news stringer, whose job entails rushing from accident to catastrophe, catching the gory details in vivid, close-up detail.
Bloom falls into the job after witnessing a cameraman, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton, in a small, but important role), scramble to film a fiery car crash. He questions Loder at the scene and realizes that, finally, he’s found the job he was made to do.
The awfulness of the work is practically a perk. Responding to criticism of his manner, he asks, “What if my problem isn’t that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?” When bad things happen, that’s good.
Bloom learns the rules of the road from a producer, Nina Romina (Rene Russo, as a fellow sociopath who is simply less self-aware). She senses his abilities and explains that she thinks of her newscast as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”
Explicit images of gore and tragedy, preferably inflicted upon middle-class victims, are what sell the show. The videographer who gets the bloodiest images makes the most money; the competition is cutthroat, and so is the ideal video.
To its credit, “Nightcrawler” manages to convey that imagery without engaging too much in the kind of gruesome titillation it critiques. When Bloom is at an accident, Mr. Gilroy shoots Bloom’s face and the screen he watches. We’re watching what he’s watching, and watching him watch.
This is a movie about evil voyeurism and local news, which in “Nightcrawler’s” bleak satirical universe are the same thing.
The episodic plotting occasionally drags, and the script, like its protagonist, is sometimes too blunt. But the movie is nervy and often gripping. You can’t look away, even when you might feel you ought to. Indeed, that’s the point.
CREDITS: Written and directed by Dan Gilroy
RATING: R for language, violent imagery
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS