‘Nightcrawler” is about TV news-video parasites, but the freakiest thing in it — the biggest bedbug of all — is Jake Gyllenhaal as the movie’s hero, Lou Bloom. Gaunt, greasy-haired, his skin the color of ear wax, Lou is one of those LA loners who scuttles around the city’s baseboards, stealing copper wiring or manhole covers for whatever he can get. He’s also a dreamer — you can hear it in the motivational doubletalk he has picked up from business seminar websites, and you can see it in his eyes, which have the crazy gleam of the true believer.
Lou is an actor’s creation, and Gyllenhaal is a very good actor. In movies like “Zodiac,” “Prisoners,” “End of Watch” — all the way back to “Donnie Darko” — he has been a grim trouper indeed, so it’s nice to see him lighten up and get a little gonzo. Here he’s like De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin dropped into the middle of “Network.”
The movie gets hopping when Lou drives by a freeway accident one night and sees a freelance video team at work. It’s led by a scruffy opportunist named Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), who tracks the nightly calamities by police scanner, shows up with a camera, and sells if-it-bleeds-it-leads exclusives to local stations at a few hundred a pop. Then and there, Lou decides to become a “stringer” himself.
His initial forays are awkwardly comic, our hero barging into the middle of crime scenes with a cheap consumer-cam. But he has two qualities necessary for this sort of work — an eye and no moral compass whatsoever — and his footage of a gory carjacking aftermath catches the attention of Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a news director at the lowest-ranked station in town. Russo bites off some of the same scenery Faye Dunaway chewed in “Network,” and she spits it out with gusto. Nina’s a former anchorwoman aging downward in the business, and she’s ready to sell her soul to stay in the game. What do you know, here comes Satan.
The scene in which Lou moves a body at a car crash so he can get a better shot is where “Nightcrawler” starts opening onto the abyss; it gets a gasp and nervous laughter from audiences while acknowledging that the creep is actually some kind of artist. There’s worse to come. The writer-director is Dan Gilroy, making his behind the camera debut; he previously wrote “Two for the Money” and a “Bourne” movie. His brother, Tony, wrote even more “Bourne” movies and wrote and directed “Michael Clayton”; their dad is the Pulitzer-winning playwright Frank D. Gilroy (“The Subject Was Roses”). Genetics are involved. Russo is Mrs. Dan Gilroy, for what it’s worth.
It’s a solid first time out in any event, entertainingly obvious at some points, obvious-obvious at others, and jazzed to have a rich subject and a star willing to run with it. Gorgeously shot by Robert Elswit, too: The opening images of LA at night are a coffee-table book unto themselves. And behind the seamy rise-and-rise of Lou Bloom — who is soon calling himself “Louis” and hiring an intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed, slyly funny), to provide navigation and back-up camera — is a disgust at the sentimentalized bloodlust of TV newsmongering, plus a smidgen of appalled admiration for the tactics of the Lous and Ninas of this world. (Gilroy gets regular laughs by cutting to reaction shots from Nina’s colleague, played by Kevin Rahm -- Ted Chaough of “Mad Men” — as the station’s ethics weenie.)
So “Nightcrawler” has a message (TV news is scurrilous junk and we’re all to blame) but puts it in the mouth of Lou, a narcissistic sociopath who embraces the sleaze with the fervor of an evangelist. Late in the game, well after Lou has proved he’s willing to make news in order to film it, he turns to Rick and says, “What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them?” Lou’s great at his job because he puts a distancing frame around whatever he sees, and that’s a problem that’s hardly his alone. Of course he’ll prosper. He knows that everything is TV.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.