When we meet Lou Bloom, the protagonist of “Nightcrawler,” we know him immediately to be a man of persistent, easy lies. He is a thief, and a violent one, who nonetheless has some inkling of going straight — or, at least, applying his considerable persistence and smarts to a slightly more aboveboard operation than fencing scrap metal. This can be a tough jump to make for a loner who appears to have no meaningful human connections.
Conceived by director/screenwriter Dan Gilroy as an apparent sociopath and played by Jake Gyllenhaal as likely somewhere on the autism spectrum, Bloom happens upon an accident on a Los Angeles freeway one night. As police pull the driver from the burning car, a freelance videographer (Bill Paxton) arrives to shoot footage for the morning local news shows, giving Bloom the idea to buy a camera and police scanner (using proceeds from a bike theft, natch) and begin chasing mayhem — “nightcrawling,” in the parlance of the practitioners of this voyeuristic, mercenary art.
Every year we should be so lucky as to get even a single L.A. noir that crackles as much as “Nightcrawler.” Gyllenhaal and Gilroy here are in total control of their respective crafts. The actor hasn’t been better, or really even close, since his Oscar nomination for “Brokeback Mountain” launched him to some level above mere indie-flavored action star. Bloom is about as cuddly as a gravestone, as much a puzzle as he is anti-hero. It’s hard to come up with an analog for him anywhere in American cinema; not quite Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, he brings some of the same nocturnal outsider verve, the same tainted social awkwardness.
But, importantly, Bloom is a self-made product of an education gleaned from the Internet, where you can find out anything if you dig enough, as he tells his go-to news director (Rene Russo). That statement can be true only so far as it goes. When his skittish understudy Rick (Riz Ahmed) tells Bloom that his problem is he doesn’t understand people, Bloom eventually retorts: What if I simply don’t like them? Bloom sees people, and human systems — and himself, to a large extent — mostly as problems to be solved, faking his way through just enough charm to navigate them, regarding rejection with no more emotional attachment than a dead end in a hedge maze. He is what happens when an online recluse tries to hack the outside world.
He finds in the amoral business of hunting down and filming crime and disaster scenes a venue that rewards his ambition. If Gilroy hits a flat note, it’s in his too-frank self-analysis that Russo’s news director offers for how casually sleazy the news business is: Short version, no one cares when the poor die or are robbed. Otherwise, he’s terrific at building the story around this cold-blooded centerpiece Bloom, so closely named to the wandering and offal-eating principal of “Ulysses.”
Gilroy and Gyllenhaal have created a character who seems quietly capable of anything except making a decision that doesn’t work in his favor and placed him in high-speed, neon-saturated California-by-dark. By the final act, they achieve a unique disconnect. You’ll have no emotional allegiance whatsoever to this scoundrel Bloom, and yet, as his plans come together, you’ll find your heart thudding against your ribs, your spine twisting you down into your seat. They conspire to turn us into rubberneckers of the most elated sort, co-conspirators in this wicked fun by virtue of our compulsion to keep watching.