Nightcrawler is a delightful surprise- a deliciously dark satire on the desperate vileness of the news media and the chase for ratings glory above all else. It conveys the way sensationalism trumps ethics in journalism, moral consideration and empathy at nearly every turn, but it does this in the guise of a B-movie thriller, carried by a terrifically creepy Jake Gyllenhaal in one of his best performances and one of the year's most memorable movie characters- a kind of societal companion to loner psychos like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle.
Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a twisted sociopath whose background we know nothing about, who doesn't appear to ever sleep and roams Los Angeles neighborhoods at night acting as a petty thief, even mugging a cop in the very first scene so we can see that he later sells the guy's watch at a pawn shop. But Lou isn't just an average thief- no, he's professionally motivated and extremely ambitious. He wants a career where he can get ahead and speaks in clipped, business seminar anecdotes about the power of knowing your worth and retaining your bargaining power. We don't know what he's looking for exactly, and maybe he doesn't either until he stumbles across a crime scene and a TV news crew and suddenly decides he wants to be a freelance cameraman who records news footage for sale.
They're called "nightcrawlers," they show up at the scene of a "valuable" crime (white, wealthy victims usually) and they get all the footage they can in order to sell it to the highest bidder. Lou comes to realize he has a knack for this kind of work (presumably because he has virtually no feelings about people at all) and finds a local news station hungry for the ratings power he can bring to them. The news director at this station is Nina (Rene Russo), who's nearly as cold and calculating as Lou, and perfectly willing to pay him whatever he wants for the most despicable and graphic footage he's able to provide. The two make a dastardly duo, and Lou goes about perfecting his trade by taking on a reluctant but financially desperate sidekick as his "employee" and attempting to put together his own production company as they plunge further and further into some very disturbing waters.
There are elements of this story that are a bit murky, such as the unexplored relationship between Lou and Nina- he uses his power to force her into a sexual relationship with him, but we're never shown any of what's supposedly happening behind closed doors there. And the motivations of Lou are a complete mystery- he's not just a guy off his rocker, ala Travis Bickle, but a well organized, highly motivated, intelligent sociopath drawn to a specific profession- this hardly seems like a person who could ever exist in real life, and as such he's a "movie" character through and through, which keeps the film from realistically relaying the very real points it's trying to make about the news industry and leeches like Bloom, who do exist in real life. But the general point is there, and the ride is so entertaining (it goes into some dark and completely unpredictable twists in the climax) that the movie is a thrilling ride through this morally grey underworld that chills you in its impact. And one more word for Gyllenhaal, who plays this guy in a freakish, creepy and unforgettable performance- I've never been totally sold on him as an actor before, but he's the real deal, and so is Nightcrawler.
* * * 1/2