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He can’t sleep. He barely makes ends meet. He spends his nights rummaging around Los Angeles, stealing metal and other items that he can pawn and/or sell, all while pimping his possible employment credentials. Of course, it’s a losing battle. “I don’t hire thieves,” says one scrap recycler, making it very clear to the slightly sleazy — and borderline psychotic — Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) that, perhaps, the only pathway to a lasting career is going into business for himself.

Our tightly wound antihero thinks he’s found the answer when he runs into freelancer “stringer” Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). Explaining that there’s a large media market out there for violent on-the-scene crime footage (“If it bleeds, it leads.”), he inspires Louis to steal a bike, buy a video camera, and hire a harried intern (Riz Ahmed) to listen to the police scanner for possible product. Whatever he captures, he sells to local TV news chief Nina Romina (Rene Russo), who is desperate to save her station’s lagging ratings.

When Louis’ work proves popular, she demands more. He delivers, becoming bankable in the process. Then, one night, he stumbles onto a home invasion turned violent and deadly. Manipulating the footage, he puts himself and his skill set into the middle of the investigation. While Detectives Frontierre (Michael Hyatt) and Lieberman (Price Carson) are convinced he knows more than he’s telling, Louise continues to set his strategy in place, to wit: capture the killer, capture the footage, capture the viewers’ imagination, and perhaps, capture the spotlight for himself.

Known as “nightcrawlers,” these investigative insomniacs supposedly supply our local 24 hour news cycle with all the blood and gore our morbidly curious little hearts can handle. For famed screenwriter turned first-time director Dan Gilroy (brother of Tony), they also supply the substance for this otherwise odd character study. While it considers itself a thriller, milking nighttime LA for all the neon noir ambience it can muster, Nightcrawler is really just a revealing look at a well-read, laser-focused mental case. In fact, the one film that keeps filtering through Gilroy’s attempted anti-Fourth Estate screed is the recent remake of Maniac. Elijah Wood’s haunted performance in that graduated slasher is reminiscent of what Gyllenhaal does here. By trading on his boy next door charms, he turns his otherwise noxious self-aggrandizement into something to truly worry about.

This is especially true of Louis’ exchanges with Nina. She’s obviously older than him, but he doesn’t care. As a matter of fact, he negotiates a physical relationship with her in the same stern, cutthroat manner that he earns his larger and larger paychecks. Thanks to Gilroy’s decision to bring his wife, Rene Russo, back to the fore (before her turns in Thor and Thor: The Dark World, she hadn’t made a movie in six years), we get moments of near screwball comedy, except what Louis and Nina are sparring over is disturbing, to say the least. These are the sequences that sizzle, not the second-act home invasion subplot. Since we know Louis and understand his methods, we can only hope his efforts result in as few people as possible getting hurt. Our prayers are answered, just not in the way we want.

In other places, Gilroy stumbles a bit. Paddy Chayefsky’s Network remains the patented gold standard for commenting on our out-of-control TV mentality. Nightcrawler isn’t even on the same plane. The house invasion element is a red herring, just another way to show how far down the depraved rabbit hole Louis will travel to find their own wonderland. Of course, just listening to the man would provide enough insight to warn you off any involvement with him, professional or personal. Yet Nightcrawler keeps making the case for Louis’ likeable amorality, with everyone else going along for the dollar sign ride.

When it stays grounded with character, when the situations revolve around the pawns in Louis’ particularly problematic business plan, Nightcrawler is inspired. Unfortunately, the rest of its message is mired in the past.

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