As a gonzo freelance news cameraman prowling for the goriest, grizzliest scoops he can find, Jake Gyllenhaal gives such a buggy, twitchy performance that — with his sunken cheeks, bulging eyes and greasy hair — he resembles some Cronenbergian mutant in an intermediate stage of transformation. He’s the main attraction in “Nightcrawler,” a cynical, sick-soul-of-Los-Angeles movie that announces itself as a “Medium Cool” or “Network” for the TMZ era, but doesn’t have much to say beyond the familiar, shopworn hand-wringing about shutterbugs willing to do anything to get the shot and the desensitized voyeur audience — us — that laps it all up. A flashy but hollow first directing gig for veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy (“The Bourne Legacy”), this Oct. 31 Open Road release is a star vehicle that will test audience enthusiasm for Gyllenhaal’s big, mannered star turn — a feast of capital-A acting that’s sometimes amusing to watch but not believable for so much as a second.
Very much a screenwriter’s movie in its habit of illustrating obvious points with self-impressed metaphors, “Nightcrawler” begins with Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom scraping by as a literal scavenger, selling stolen scrap metal for cash, before chancing into his new metier as a scavenger of human suffering, armed with a camcorder and police radio scanner. After a handful of amusingly botched first efforts (in which he turns his camera upon such mundane sights as a DUI breathalyzer test), quick-study Louis soon figures out that “if it bleeds, it leads” — words Gilroy can’t help from inserting into the mouth of an older, more seasoned cameraman (Bill Paxton, who also has the misfortune of having to declaim the movie’s title). Not long after that, Louis finds himself an eager ally in Nina (Rene Russo), the middle-aged news director at a last-place affiliate, whose overdone eye shadow and barely concealed desperation tell us she’s reached the last stop in a career of diminishing returns.
“Nightcrawler” goes on to trace a predictable trajectory in which, as Louis’ star rises, he becomes bolder and more reckless in his pursuits — not just of stories, but of Nina herself. Literal police lines and hazier ethical ones present no object, as this camcorder-wielding Weegee pushes his lens ever closer to the point of impact, be it a carjacking victim writhing in his death throes or the bullet-riddled family photos on a kitchen refrigerator. Viewers want to see “urban crime creeping into the suburbs,” Nina tells Louis before describing her ideal newscast as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat slit” — a variation on the Faye Dunaway character in “Network” pitching a reality show starring a band of SLA-style terrorists. Eventually hiring a rather hapless intern/navigator (Riz Ahmed) and trading his dumpy hatchback sedan for a turbo-charged Dodge Challenger, Louis so effectively cuts down on his response times that he begins beating the police to the scene. And, when that isn’t enough to give him his fix, he tries to get to the scene before the crime has even happened, to will the news itself into being.
Touches of apocalyptic comedy run throughout “Nightcrawler,” but the movie’s overriding tone is one of strident, finger-wagging self-seriousness. Gilroy seems to think he’s really blowing the lid off something here about the depths to which journalists will sink, and the gross manipulations of TV news. When Louis shifts a few items around at one crime scene to make for a more pleasing visual composition, we’re meant to be shocked; and when he does the same thing a while later — only, this time, with a human corpse as his set dressing — the grim laughter is supposed to catch in our throats. But both scenes are really just trumped-up versions of William Hurt’s post-produced crocodile tears in “Broadcast News,” and anything but shocking at a time when we’ve come to expect professional framing and lighting from even an ISIS beheading video.
Alarmingly gaunt and jittering like a finals student on a coffee-and-Dexatrim bender, all but barking at the moon, Gyllenhaal is undeniably committed to the role, but the character itself never feels like more than a collection of half-baked notions about underemployed young men with too much Web-surfing time on their hands. (Although we never learn much about who Louis is or where he comes from, it’s clear that his sociopathic tendencies have been aided and abetted by Google.) It doesn’t help that Gyllenhaal himself donned a far more nuanced — and frightening — version of this persona just two years ago in David Ayer’s superior “End of Watch,” as a video-obsessed cop who becomes a kind of megalomaniacal reality auteur. Whereas that character had an actual arc, Louis is such an obvious psycho from frame one that there’s nowhere left for him to go.
Working with regular Paul Thomas Anderson cinematographer Robert Elswit, Gilroy goes for all the iconic L.A. trappings: Venice Beach, the LAX flight path, oil derricks and palm trees swaying in rhythmic unison, and the fluorescent haze that hangs in the nighttime sky. A family affair, the pic counts Gilroy’s filmmaker brother Tony (“Michael Clayton”) among its producers, with editing by brother John Gilroy.