Action news: Jake Gyllenhaal prowls Los Angeles in Nightcrawler

by Mark Burger

When Nightcrawler is good, it’s very, very good “” a topical and punchy indictment of media sensationalism. But when it’s bad, it’s a pretentious overstatement on exactly the same theme. What’s unfortunate is that much of the latter could have easily been excised from the narrative, which wouldn’t have compromised it, but intensified it.

Nevertheless, writer/director Dan Gilroy gets more right than wrong, nowhere more so than in coaxing a dynamic performance by Jake Gyllenhaal (one of his very best) that warrants serious consideration as we bear down on awards time.

Operating within the stylishly hellish ambiance fashioned by ace cinematographer Robert Elswit, Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom cruises through the mean streets of Los Angeles, constantly in search of the latest accident or police bulletin in his quest to bring the images into people’s living rooms on the evening news. It’s a dirty business but someone’s got to do it, and Louis dives into it headfirst, bankrupting his own morality along the way.

(Even as the story opens, his sense of morality is clearly on the wane.)

Gyllenhaal, also one of the film’s producers, is thoroughly loathsome “” and thoroughly believable “” as the obsessed newshound, caring not for the victims or proper police procedure or even a semblance of good taste. It’s a brave, crackling performance, and Gilroy provides him with some sharp dialogue throughout.

Rene Russo (the real-life Mrs. Gilroy) enjoys one of her best roles as Nina Romino, a veteran news producer hungry for the ratings that Louis’ footage provides but uncomfortable with its ramifications “” and Louis’ additional demands. So to is Riz Ahmed as Louis’ sidekick Rick, who eventually bristles against his mentor’s advice and attitude. Ever-reliable Bill Paxton provides some flashy, cynical competition as a fellow “nightcrawler” but his eventual departure from the film is among it weakest, most heavy-handed moments.

Nightcrawler bears some similarities to Haskell Wexler’s ground-breaking Medium Cool (1968) “” the film it most resembles “” and the equally superb Paddy Chayefsky/Sidney Lumet collaboration Network (1976). It’s not as good as either film but deserves mention in the same breath. Sometimes, it even has moments of greatness.