Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Kevin Rahm and Bill Paxton. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” a veteran news photographer actually says out loud in Nightcrawler, as if we’ve never heard that one before. I don’t know if you happen to have noticed but sometimes our tabloid media panders to the lowest common denominator without much concern for professional ethics or human decency. In the wake of this shocking revelation, I’ll give you a moment to un-clutch your pearls and get up from the fainting couch before we continue.

Okay, so this directorial debut from screenwriter Dan Gilroy stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Louis Bloom, a wormy cretin on the fringes of Los Angeles making ends meet by stealing copper wire and manhole covers. Louis speaks almost exclusively in the kind of banal self-help slogans you hear at charlatan business seminars, but despite the go-getter lingo he still looks like a drowned rat. Following his daft turn in last year’s prestige howler Prisoners, Gyllenhaal is apparently reinventing his career by playing aliens. He lost a lot of weight for this role — which is what serious young actors do — distorting his bland handsomeness into a cadaverous, sunken visage. Bug-eyed and unblinking, Gyllenhaal eschews contractions and cycles through a retrospective of the young Robert De Niro’s greatest tics. It’s an awful lot of acting but not much of a character.

Louis has his “eureka” moment when he happens upon a grisly car accident and notices a free-lance cameraman shooting all the gory details. Played by Bill Paxton (in one of those nothing, expositional roles name actors sometimes take as favors to friends making their first movies) this “nightcrawler” hips our protagonist to all the exciting opportunities available to anyone with a camcorder and a police scanner. Before long Louis is out roaming the streets himself, gathering graphic footage he sells to a bottom-rung local television station’s beleaguered news department.

Being a fearless sociopath, he’s quite good at this – earning the admiration of a ratings-hungry executive played by Rene Russo playing Faye Dunaway in Network. (So much of Nightcrawler is borrowed from other movies it should come with footnotes citing sources.) The alarmist “satirical” TV stuff here is adorably quaint, feeling as if Gilroy has had this script in his desk drawer since the Reagan administration and nobody had the heart to tell him that Dirty Harry already skewered these nocturnal, ambulance-chasing news crews to much greater comic effect twenty-six years ago in The Dead Pool.

As Louis moves up in the world, Nightcrawler becomes a bent Horatio Alger tale – a logical end to self-improvement mantras unencumbered by conscience. Bloom gets a flashy car and an intern he can abuse, blurring the boundaries of acceptable behavior to increasingly sinister returns while Russo’s stick-in-the-mud sidekick (Mad Men’s Teddy Chaough) buries his face in his hands, ineffectually whimpering about ethics in journalism. Gilroy’s film marches slowly to a foregone conclusion that feels like small potatoes given how many times we’ve seen this kind of thing before.

I’m told the film was inspired by the 2009 case of a Brazilian talk show host who hired contract killers as part of a ratings stunt, but despite the look-at-me weirdness of Gyllenhaal’s performance, Nightcrawler is far too staid for any such outre developments. It’s a handsome-looking movie shot from boringly conventional angles, with the great cinematographer Robert Elswit employing 35mm for daylight scenes and digital video in the darkness. The iridescent, empty L.A. cityscapes at night and James Newton Howard’s synth-pop score suggest everyone involved is a big fan of Drive.

This curiously underpopulated picture is missing one crucial character – the audience. At no point are we complicit in any of the voyeuristic kicks Gilroy aims to indict. This stuff wouldn’t sell if people weren’t watching, but the movie seems afraid to wade into that particular muck the way, say Oliver Stone did with Natural Born Killers. Gyllenhaal’s creepazoid theatrics are superficially amusing (he plays every interaction like Travis’ “Henry Krinkle” conversation with the Secret Service agent in Taxi Driver, right down to the icky fake smile) but leave the viewer at a safe reserve. For a movie that tries so hard to be disturbing, Nightcrawler is actually quite comforting. It takes a societal sickness and blames it on a boogeyman.

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