Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a self-made man, just don't ask him how many people he stepped on during his way there. He has a speech prepared for why you should make him your newest employee, the problem is Louis forgets how calculating every little word is that falls out of his mouth. Desperate for any kind of inroads to a career, Louis discovers one by chance on the side of the road.
A car-fire draws his attention, as well as the attentions of a couple of stringers eager to get footage of an accident on the highway. Stringers are freelance camera crews who film carjackings, crashes, fires, murders, drug crimes and other gruesome stories, then sell the footage to local news stations. As one veteran nightcrawler puts it, "if it bleeds, it leads." Louis scrimps, swipes and steals whatever he can get his hands on to purchase a camera to break into the field. Muscling into nightcrawling proves difficult, but once Louis puts his mind to something, nothing can stop him.
Essential to Louis's evolution as a morally reprehensible "journalist" is KWLA news director Nina (Rene Russo). Nina may have her qualms about the material Louis brings in, but with a contract expiring soon, she's not prioritizing moral concerns over ratings. Nina aged out of being an anchorwoman and her tenuous grasp on her position means not saying no to some of the more graphic footage Louis pedals.
There are quite a few targets in the sights of writer/director Dan Gilroy: contemporary employment issues, evidenced by the perverse exploitation of intern Rick (Rick Garcia), but the real meat of the film is the horrifically inhuman trade where human suffering is calculated into a price tag and then cut into a check each morning. Like other recent profiles in ambitious men (There Will Be Blood, The Social Network), Nightcrawler takes a particularly unlikable man and watches him ascend the corporate ladder.
Louis Bloom is a character so unique you can't take your eyes off of him, even when he is at his most repellent. Beneath the meticulously composed image that Louis offers wholesale to whoever will listen lies a sociopath. Gyllenhaal dives in, unafraid of distastefully crossing the line of observing a story and manipulating it for more cash, among other incidents. Even Daniel Plainview would shy away from blackmailing a coworker into a sexual relationship. Jake Gyllenhaal likely faces an uphill road for any kind of awards play because of the unseemly nature of his character.
Adding to the lure of this thriller is the excellent lensing by Robert Elswit. The academy award winner captures Los Angeles at its most vicious. There's a lot of horrors going on in the underbelly of Los Angeles and Louis can cash in on all of them. Accompanying the excellent cinematography is James Newton Howard's score which cues a bizarre heroic theme that plays through Louis's head, but it's the ominous blare that lingers in the air that tells the story.
Satire is a tough sell these days, but when a writer can mine some dark laughs out of the material it avoids feeling like medicine. Nightcrawler isn't solely about the fundamentally flawed nature of 21st news coverage, but it lands more than its share of punches in that regard. Thrillers like this are hard to come by, movie lovers would be doing themselves a disservice by missing out on it.