United States. Directed by Dan Gilroy, 2014. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo. 117 minutes.

When we first meet Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), he’s a petty thief who talks like a corporate executive. He describes himself as “a hard worker” who “sets high goals” and describes himself as “persistent.” He peppers his speech with phrases like “communication is the number one single key to success” and “why you pursue something is as important as what you pursue” and “you have to make the money to buy a ticket.”

He’s not an executive. He’s a “nightcrawler,” a freelance videographer; he and his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed) show up at crime and accident scenes, camcorders in hand, recording the damage and selling the footage to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director at a TV station in L.A. Nina describes her newscast as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” She wants graphic and sensational footage, and she’s willing to pay top dollar for it.

That’s the setup of Nightcrawler, an intense and riveting indictment of the news media from Dan Gilroy. Gilroy has a point to make and he makes it by marrying the righteous anger of an ’80s “message movie” with the vibe of a ’70s New Hollywood thriller. This is not a subtle film and its primary weakness is that the sermonizing occasionally gets a bit too heavy-handed, especially towards the end.

But it’s hard to care about those flaws when a movie engrosses as much as this one. The direction is so well-constructed and confident that it’s difficult to believe this is Gilroy’s first feature-length effort. The pacing is brisk, the action exciting, and atmosphere oozes from every pixel. He creates an almost dystopic vision of the City of Angels and brings it to life vividly. Seedy underbellies have rarely been so exciting.

At the center of it all is Gyllenhaal’s gripping performance as Lou, a guy who almost never drops his calm, collected, businesslike front, even when he’s plotting to fuck you over out of spite. He only uncoils the rage a couple of times, but when he does, he’s as scary as any horror-movie monster. He owns this fictional world and he utterly dominates it. That’s not to say the supporting performances, by Russo, Ahmed, Bill Paxton (as a rival ‘crawler) and Kevin Rahm of Desperate Housewives (as Russo’s boss) are weak, but they all exist in Gyllenhaal’s shadow.

With Nightcrawler, Gilroy delivers a remarkable crime thriller with an equally remarkable central performance. Highly recommended, especially for fans of ’70s action thrillers such as Taxi Driver.

Nightcrawler

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