"Nightcrawler" is pulp with a purpose. A smart, engaged film powered by an altogether remarkable performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, it is melodrama grounded in a disturbing reality, an extreme scenario that is troubling because it cuts close to the bone.
The theme of "Nightcrawler," written and directed by Dan Gilroy, is the excesses of the "if it bleeds, it leads" culture of local television news, a world where the words "what you are about to see is graphic" are both a warning and a come-on.
But the main attraction of this film is not what goes on behind the scenes at Los Angeles' fictional KWLA, Channel 6, but rather an examination of the character and career trajectory of one Lou Bloom, the young man in a hurry that Gyllenhaal brings to life with extraordinary conviction.
A hollow-eyed, delusional hustler always looking for the main chance, Lou is introduced doing a pair of typical things: breaking the law and trying to talk his way out of it with practiced glibness.
A determined autodidact who "has not had much of what you'd call a formal education," Lou has schooled himself on the Internet, and it shows in the earnest insincerity of the self-improvement phraseology he often resorts to, as when he tells a prospective employer, "I know that today's work culture no longer caters to the job loyalty that could be promised to earlier generations." It's almost as if he were born on a galaxy far away and being human is something of an acquired skill.
Gyllenhaal has been memorable in the past ("Brokeback Mountain," "End of Watch," "Prisoners"), but, as impeccably written by Gilroy (whose credits include co-writing "The Bourne Legacy" with brother Tony), his Lou is a creature apart.
Extremely friendly on the surface, Lou's mesmerizing cheerfulness is scarier than other people's anger because, as with Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver," there is unmistakable mania lurking around the edges, if not closer.
Untroubled by other people's definitions of reality, Lou burns with a terrible and terrifying desperation. We never find out why he is this way, but we do come to understand that there is nothing he is not capable of, no line he will not cross if he feels it will get him where he wants to go.
It all begins on a random night, when Lou stumbles across a freeway car accident and notices Joe Loder (an expert Bill Paxton) and another cameraman for the aptly named Mayhem Video.
These men are freelance videographers who trawl the streets of L.A. looking for any and all violent situations and sell the resulting footage to ever-hungry local TV stations. This is a world Lou never knew existed, and you can almost feel the gears moving into place: Hey, this is something I could do.
Lou acquires, never mind how, a camcorder and a police scanner, and he's in business. Sort of. So new he's never heard the word "stringer" and doesn't understand what he should be filming, Lou catches a break when he connects with Nina Romina (Rene Russo in one of her best roles).
A woman of a certain age, Nina is KWLA's news director for the dusk-to-dawn hours known as the vampire shift. Desperate in her own way, she recognizes a kindred spirit in Lou, as well as a good eye, and she fills him in on the kind of footage she's looking for.
"I want something people can't turn away from," she says. The key word is not bloody but "graphic," the victims should be well-off and white. "Think of our newscast," she concludes, "as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut."
"I've always been a fast learner," Lou replies, nothing daunted. "You'll be seeing me again." And so the journey begins.
Though he can barely support himself, Lou's first move is to brazen it out and acquire an assistant, the hapless Rick (a splendid Riz Ahmed, compelling in "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" and "Closed Circuit"), who is persuaded to come on as a nonpaid intern.
"I'm giving you the chance to explore career options and gain insight into my organization," Lou says, though his organization doesn't exist. "It's not at all unusual for me to make full-time job offers to my interns," who are also nonexistent.
As Lou makes his way, upgrading his chase car from a blue Toyota Tercel to a red Dodge Challenger, Gilroy's lean, straight-ahead direction pulls us along with him, aided by the editing of John Gilroy (another brother) and cool, seductive cinematography by the veteran Robert Elswit (an Oscar winner for "There Will Be Blood") that makes Los Angeles look like the dream and the nightmare rolled into one.
Despite the melodrama that increases as "Nightcrawler" moves to a conclusion, there is no denying that something real is in the wind here, something about us as a society, how we talk and what we value. No matter what we think of Lou and his exploits, it is hard to deny that the world he thrives in is the one we have made.