Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler

Veering wildly between satire, psychological thrills, and moral drama, Nightcrawler attacks the seediness of contemporary TV journalism like Network on steroids. Dan Gilroy, a veteran Hollywood screenwriter making his directorial debut, delivers his outrage bluntly and aggressively, often resorting to outlandish, violent complications to emphasize the urgency of his message. His social commentary is never really convincing—like most industry professionals, he seems unable to critique media sensationalism without succumbing to it himself—but if you don’t think about this too hard, Nightcrawler is thoroughly compelling. For a first-time director, Gilroy demonstrates an uncommon assurance, not only in his audacious tonal shifts but in the stellar work he elicits from his cast and crew.

The most attention-grabbing contribution comes from Jake Gyllenhaal, whose controlled lead performance serves to distract from the sketchiness of Gilroy’s ideas. Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou Bloom, is an isolated LA sociopath. He’s obsessed with getting ahead, to a nearly comic degree—his dialogue consists mainly of motivational seminar cliches—yet when the movie opens he’s unable to convince anyone to hire him. One night, at the site of an ugly car cash, Bloom meets videographer Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), who explains that there’s good money to be made in selling crime and accident footage to local TV stations. Before long Bloom is strong-arming his way behind police lines and ingratiating himself with a sleazy TV news producer named Nina Romina (Rene Russo). Gyllenhaal lost 20 pounds to play Bloom, and he creates a memorable screen presence; his frame wiry, his gaze unblinking, his smile broad and ghoulish, he alternately suggests a jack-o-lantern and a rabid animal.

To Gilroy, Bloom is less an agent of TV news than a monstrous by-product of it. Determined to reach the top of his profession, he goes so far as to orchestrate violent crimes so that he can scoop his competitors. Nina ought to question his methods, but instead she encourages him; the main difference between them is that Bloom is willing to get his hands dirty whereas Nina doesn’t have to leave her comfortable studio. On a metaphorical level, this all makes sense. But Bloom is such a socially inept freak one can’t imagine an actual TV producer wanting to be in the same room with him. Gilroy’s disregard for realism isn’t a problem so long as he’s working in a satirical or a noirish mode. Only when he tries to make Nightcrawler a cautionary tale does he overplay his hand.