Somehow, Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t get full credit for the chances he takes as an actor. And yet, this is a performer who burst on the scene in City Slickers, but boasts such incredible, daring and unconventional films as Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, The Good Girl and David Fincher’s masterpiece, Zodiac. But the DiCaprios and Depps of the world get lauded for their high-profile risks, while Gyllenhaal keeps delivering with the likes of Prisoners or Enemy.

The tide should turn in Gyllenhaal’s favor, finally, with Nightcrawler, a seedy, after-hours contemporary thriller about the insomniac ambulance chasers who record exclusive video at human tragedies, then sell them for top dollar to ratings-hungry local news producers. Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is an out-of-work hustler, a hard-working fast talker who chases job opportunities around every corner. On the way home from a scavenger hunt – during which he sells stolen metals to salvage yard managers – Bloom sees a veteran nightcrawler (Bill Paxton) filming a police rescue at a car crash. Ever the sponge, Bloom figures out how to get his foot in the game. Soon, he’s monitoring a police scanner and chasing his own breaking news opportunities around Los Angeles’ neon-drenched streets.

Louis Bloom fascinates, particularly because he shifts shapes as he adapts to his scenario. You will spend the bulk of Nightcrawler trying to figure out what, about him, is accurate and true. Most of that is due to Gyllenhaal’s mesmerizing performance, which is both guarded (in the way it protects secrets) and completely open. Bloom is a pariah and a thief. He’s a smarmy grifter, but an entrepreneur with a taste for what’s seedy. He finds his niche in the tracking of ratings-worthy news, where whatever bleeds tends to lead. And he finds a twisted mentor in Nina (Rene Russo), a late-night producer at a low-rated L.A. news cast who needs Louis’ exclusive footage as much as he needs to be accepted, recognized and respected.

Nightcrawler marks the directorial debut of writer-director Dan Gilroy, but his previous credentials are lengthy and impressive. He penned The Bourne Legacy and The Fall, and collaborates here with siblings Tony (who produces this film) and John (who edits). He wisely surrounds himself with talent, from cinematographer Robert Elswit to composer James Newton Howard. The film’s visual and tonal references can include everything to Taxi Driver and Collateral to Oliver Stone’s menacing Talk Radio. But make no mistake. Nightcrawler is its own original monster, a disturbing jog into a demented community I’m sure exists, but one we haven’t seen on screen before. Nightcrawler has as much to say about the dirty dealings behind the scenes at local news as it does about the psychos willing to get footage to continue the story. Don’t ever stop filming.

For now, I’m going to protect some of Nightcrawler’s juiciest secrets. Know this: the film is unafraid to plunge us into a seedy, sleazy story of questionable journalism and indie-business ethics during a time of economic uncertainty. It holds a mirror up to a major city in a modern time, but introduces a psychotic, sociopathic tour guide who instantly becomes one for the ages.

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