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Movies about journalists are a crucial part of the American cinematic landscape, but they come in two antithetical forms. The reporters are either crusaders for truth, like in All the President’s Men, Good Night, and Good Luck, or last month’s under-seen Kill the Messenger, or shady symbols of corporate corruption, like in Network, Ace in the Hole, and, of course, Citizen Kane. Nightcrawler, a darkly hilarious and thought-provoking new thriller, falls into the latter category, and while its scope is more narrow than those American classics, its critique cuts just as deep.

The film belongs to Jake Gyllenhaal, a movie star for a better era. Never averse to risk taking, Gyllenhaal creates one of his most unsympathetic characters yet in Louis Bloom, a small-time crook who graduates from stealing chain-link fencing and manhole covers to a slightly more legitimate profession: filming crime scenes and selling the footage to local news stations. Like a nocturnal scavenger, Bloom roams the dark streets of Los Angeles, looking for carnage to film, and Gyllenhaal gives a ferocious physical performance that taps into the character’s animalistic nature: his face is uncomfortably lean (the actor lost 25 pounds for the role), his eyes wide and hungry.

His inner life is equally compelling. Uneducated but undeniably intelligent, Bloom is an ambitious entrepreneur without a business—-at least, not until he stumbles upon his new trade. He is a product of a bad economy and the Internet Age; he speaks in self-help platitudes that sound ripped from a Tony Robbins seminar and has little use for human connection, unless it will serve his business.

Two connections serve him particularly well: He forms a mutually beneficial partnership with Nina, an aging local news director (Rene Russo, just as sharp as in her ‘90s heyday) who is desperate for ratings, and he hires a naïve young assistant (Riz Ahmed) to help him navigate the streets. Bloom is a quick study, and soon he’s arriving at crime scenes even before the police get there. But as he gets closer to the crime, the line between journalist and criminal begins to blur, and his antisocial behavior turns sociopathic. His attempts to woo Nina into a romantic relationship are comically awkward, and his disregard for the physical well-being of his assistant seems destined to end badly.

With such a dysfunctional, amoral protagonist, Nightcrawler should be difficult to fully embrace, but Gyllenhaal and writer/director Dan Gilroy expertly toy with our sympathies. Gilroy, a first-time director, shows a preternatural confidence behind the camera, using Hollywood conventions to lure his audience into a natural kinship with Bloom. The thrilling car-chase scenes are filmed with a slick confidence and playful style that comes perilously close to endorsing Bloom’s psychosis. But that’s the point. Is he an earnest underdog just trying to make a living, or a sociopath who’s driven to succeed at all costs? The world doesn’t care, as long as he gets the job done.

Nightcrawler is now playing in wide release.