‘Nightcrawler’: Jake Gyllenhaal a convincing creep, but gaffes spoil story

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At times Jake Gyllenhaal’s sociopathic, nocturnal newshound Louis Bloom in “Nightcrawler” reminded me of Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in “The King of Comedy.”

Only Louis might be even creepier and scarier.

With his eyes nearly disappearing into his skull, his emaciated frame and his weird blend of enthusiasm and near-robotic monologues, Louis is one of the most disturbing movie characters of the year. Just listening to him talk will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention.

Louis becomes obsessed with entering the inner sanctum of a local news organization, much like Pupkin was obsessed with becoming a late-night TV comic. It’s a brilliant performance by Gyllenhaal in a film that veers from dark satire to tense crime thriller before the tires come off near the end, leaving the entire vehicle just short of worth recommending.

If you live in any large-sized city and you turn on your early morning newscast for the latest traffic and weather — and oh yes, some local news as well — there’s a good chance you’re going to see video footage of a horrific car crash on the expressway or maybe a crime scene, complete with yellow police tape, images of shells and blood on the ground and perhaps even a body on a stretcher.

Where does that footage come from? It’s not as if local TV news stations, even in their most profitable days, routinely had a half-dozen news crews at the ready at 2 a.m., waiting for the latest dispatch on the police scanner. Much of that footage is shot by freelance stringers — enterprising creatures of the night who monitor scanners, work their sources and race to be the first on the scene of a fire or a murder or a multi-vehicle crash. (“What we’re about to show may not be suitable for some. Viewer discretion is advised.”)

Louis is a small-time thief and full-time oddball who happens by a crash on an L.A. freeway late one night. He pulls over and watches, transfixed as the reigning king of TV freelancers, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton, terrific as usual), gets the gruesome footage and rushes off to the next crime scene.

Within days Louis has purchased a cheap video camera and a rudimentary scanner. He memorizes Los Angeles police codes and just like that, he has a new profession: freelance vulture, showing up to pick at the bones and blood of crime and crash victims.

It’s clear from the start there’s not an ounce of humanity to this guy — and that’s considered a plus when it comes to slipping under that yellow police tape, sticking your camera in the face of a guy as he’s calling 911, even tampering with crime scenes, something Louis does as casually as if he’s rearranging the sparse furniture in his tiny apartment.

“Nightcrawler” is written and directed by Dan Gilroy, and he gets some of this stuff just right. We see a lot of the carnage through Louis’ lens, and the resultant news footage looks much like the real video we see on the local news day in and night out.

But the film stumbles with some of the newsroom material, especially involving Rene Russo’s Nina Romina, a former news anchor who is now the “nightside news director” for the lowest-rated morning newscast in Los Angeles. At first Nina comes across as a variation on Faye Dunaway’s character in “Network,” but she’s so blatantly unethical and so oblivious to Louis’ insanity, she becomes a caricature. After a scene in a Mexican restaurant where Louis outlines his plan for their professional and personal relationship, I expected Nina to walk out of there, get a restraining order and never talk to Louis again, no matter how desperate she is for ratings.

RELATED: Rene Russo returns as ratings-obsessed news director

(Also, that bottom-dwelling news station is jam-packed with staffers in the pre-dawn hours, including a lawyer who’s apparently on retainer to view footage and immediately ascertain whether there’s a legal risk in running it. I don’t think too many local news stations have well-dressed attorneys hanging round the newsroom at 4 a.m. just in case such a situation arises.)

On the plus side, Rich Chambers and Holly Hannula deliver spot-on performances as the classic formula for an anchor team: older man with deep pipes and a smooth delivery; much younger, attractive co-anchor who is particularly good at repeating what the news director has just whispered in her earpiece. Like the viewers at home, they don’t spend much time wondering how the footage was obtained. The tired adage “If it bleeds, it leads” is repeated in “Nightcrawler,” and the reason that adage is tired is because decades after the term was coined, it still has relevance when it comes to local newsgathering.

Gyllenhaal is good here — though by playing a disturbed loner with haunting eyes, he’s not exactly trafficking in new dramatic territory. Gilroy’s screenplay is brimming with opportunities for Louis to share his philosophies about life, business, friendship and success.

Half of it sounds like it was gleaned from a self-help book; the rest sounds like the ramblings of a delusional narcissist in need of immediate professional help. I’d like to believe even a ratings-starved news director would recognize that and realize this guy’s potential for shattering careers throughout a newsroom — and a control room.

[s3r star=2.5/4]

Open Road presents a film written and directed by Dan Gilroy. Running time: 117 minutes. Rated R (for violence including graphic images, and for language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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