Somebody’s watching

Dark lookat media and modern man

Less than Jake.

Less than Jake.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed and Bill Paxton. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

The title may smack of some kind of creepy-crawly, super-slimy horror film. But Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, with Jake Gyllenhaal in the title role, is mostly a nocturnal character study with a darkly satirical edge to it. And the slime in this case is metaphorical, while the chief horrors are moral and psychological.

The nightcrawlers of this tale are the freelance photojournalists who deal in sensationalistic video footage of crime scenes, traffic smash-ups, and any local calamity gory enough to grab the attention of TV broadcasters. Gilroy’s movie shows the inner workings of this dubious but lucrative little industry in a Los Angeles setting, and puts primary focus on one Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal), a perversely adept newbie.

At the outset, Bloom is a lone-wolf thief dealing in stolen metals. Soon enough, however, a chance incident draws him into the peculiar, morbid excitement of the “nightcrawlers.” He parlays stolen goods into the equipment he needs and promptly finds a market for his lurid footage in Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director at a ratings-starved TV station.

After his first successes, he hires a young homeless guy named Rick (Riz Ahmed) as a brutally underpaid assistant, and begins making noises about building his own little “news service” empire. By the time he starts urging Russo’s Nina to add sexual favors to their business arrangement, it’s becoming clear not only that his priorities are seriously askew, but also that his calmly deranged machinations are tapping into power and success of a particularly destructive sort.

Gyllenhaal is superb with a character who seems nerdy and naive even when his actions have lethal consequences. A quick thinker who brings a calm, reasonable tone to even the most unreasonable of assumptions, Bloom is thoroughly enterprising and industrious as well as habitually indifferent to an ever-growing list of moral, ethical and legal distinctions.

Ultimately, Louis Bloom seems more like a satirical concept than a fully realized human character. But the concept and the satire have some very sharp and brilliant edges. Bloom is rather like an alien creature wrapped in an identity/disguise devised entirely from stuff “learned” on TV and the Internet.

Once or twice, Russo exudes cold fury à la Nancy Grace, but even as a concept rather than a fully drawn character, Nina Romina is more pungent and relevant than Gilroy’s film can permit itself to acknowledge.

Bill Paxton is effective and a little bit too disposable as the most generous and abrasive of Bloom’s rivals in the nightcrawler racket. Ahmed is so good with the scruffy desperation and scraggly integrity of the homeless assistant that he becomes the one “nightcrawler” for whom the audience might feel a modicum of real sympathy.