Gyllenhaal mesmerizes in ‘Nightcrawler’

A few years ago, Jake Gyllenhaal went through a critical wringer when he played Dastan in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” a heavily financed movie that fizzled at the box office, not even grossing half of its cost. The consensus of many reviewers was that Gyllenhaal, while a proven actor (he was nominated for an Academy Award for “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005), he was not cut out to be an action hero.

Given the right role, however, Gyllenhaal can be a commanding presence, and his work as Lou Bloom in “Nightcrawler” may be his best opportunity so far to show off his talent.

A lot credit also goes to writer-director Dan Gilroy (“Two for the Money”) for providing a script that allows Gyllenhaal as Bloom to build a character that can leave the audience with mixed feelings about this man and what he does.

As “Nightcrawler” opens, Bloom is a man trying to make a living in dishonest ways but is driven to find legitimate work. Early in the movie Bloom shows talent for building himself up to a prospective employer, a sales pitch that might have worked if only his past did not include illegal activities.

One night, fate intercedes. While driving home in his clunky car, Bloom comes upon a serious auto accident where firemen are working to free an injured driver from the burning wreckage. As he pulls over and closes in to get a closer view of the action, a van pulls up and a “nightcrawler” emerges and takes videotape of the rescue operation. Entranced by this man’s actions, Bloom hovers nearby learns that this guy is what might be generously termed a “crime (or accident) journalist.” Not affiliated with any news organization, these nightcrawlers cruise the cities while plugged into police and fire department radio scanners, and go to the scenes and take news footage that is then sold to whatever television news organization is willing to buy it. They are freelancers, or as the news organizations call them, stringers.

This becomes a defining moment in Bloom’s life. He engineers a theft that helps him finance the purchase of the basic tools in his new line of work: a video camera and a scanner. His first foray into this gruesome world of first-responders to crime and accident scenes yields sloppy but graphic images. Wisely, Bloom takes his tape to a local Los Angeles television news outlet that is last in ratings, assuming the people there will be eager to obtain and air his footage. There he meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the station’s news director whose career is teetering after years of bouncing around.

In Bloom, Nina sees a man driven to succeed in this line of work, but one who needs to refine his skills.

“Nightcrawler” is a character study, and Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing as Bloom. He is very motivated, while also showing mastery in negotiations — he could thrive as a sports agent — and manipulation. The movie is heavy in dialogue but never boring. The camera zooms in on Bloom as he uses his powers of persuasion and exercises an ability to keep people off balance.

His interchanges with Nina are fascinating as he tries to build not only a business relationship with the woman, but an intimate one as well. In addition, he hires a desperate unemployed man, Rick (Riz Ahmed), to be his assistant. The way Bloom treats Rick is chilling — he plays the poor man, one minute praising him and building his confidence with predictions of a bright future, then a minute later cutting him down with brutal, yet useful, criticism.

“Nightcrawler” also is a study of exploitation and how Bloom, with emotional detachment, can turn people’s tragedies into money-making opportunities for himself, and how he can work a desperate employee to near exhaustion and then trick the man into making a payment deal that clearly benefits himself more.

The screenplay and Gyllenhaal’s performance also create a conflict in how the Bloom character is perceived. He can be ruthless in going after his goals, yet is admirable in that he is willing to do his research and put himself on the front lines. When he tells people that he would not force them to do anything he would not do, it is the truth.

“Nightcrawler” is an uncompromising look at a world where tragedies and crimes can be immediately recorded and dispatched via various media, and what can happen when people driven by personal motivations are able to set aside any sensitivity to achieve their goals, be it great ratings on television, or big payoffs for muscling in on horrible events without ever considering the dignity or privacy of the victims.

It seemed fitting that “Nightcrawler” would be released on Halloween weekend, as it is a modern urban horror story, with Lou Bloom and Nina Romina as monsters preying on the unfortunate.

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