"Nightcrawler" may be the fall’s ultimate Rorschach test.

"Nightcrawler" may be the fall’s ultimate Rorschach test.

The story of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a newcomer who’ll do whatever it takes to make it in L.A.’s cutthroat world of freelance crime-scene reporting, is being pitched as "a pulse-pounding thriller." And it’s easy to see how moviegoers would be unnerved by him and much of what he’ll do to get his footage.

But given the grimly hilarious way Gyllenhaal inhabits Bloom — he lands somewhere between Asperger’s and sociopath, motivational speaker and door-to-door vacuum salesman — you’re more likely to be amused by it all.

Early on, Lou sells stolen chain-link fencing, copper wire and manhole covers, then unsuccessfully seeks an unpaid internship with the buyer. Lou delivers a great sales pitch, full of memorized business school aphorisms, but the idea that he would even suspect that a guy buying purloined scrap metal has some sort of fellowship program is among the first of many clues that something’s just not right in Lou’s noggin. He’s basically the younger, less employable, less homicidal brother of "American Psycho’s" Patrick Bateman.

On his way home, Lou happens upon a fiery crash on the freeway and pulls his beater of a Toyota over to have a look. A freelance cameraman (Bill Paxton) rushes by him, captures the scene and drops some cliches of the "if it bleeds, it leads" variety. He also refuses to hire Lou.

The next morning Lou flips through local newscasts and sees footage of that crash. Then he steals a bicycle, claims to have won the Tour de Mexico on it and pawns it for a police scanner and a cheap camcorder.

Lou starts showing up on police calls. He doesn’t even know what he’s filming, but he’s filming — and he’s the first cameraman there. Before long, he’s ducking under police tape and breaking into crime scenes. From there, it’s a short ethical step to moving the body of a wreck victim to orchestrate footage that’s more telegenic.

If nothing else, Lou manages to make Harvey Levin and his vultures at TMZ look somewhat less horrible.

He’s enabled/encouraged by Nina Romina (Rene Russo), news director of the ratings-challenged KWLA. Nina can’t seem to keep a job longer than her initial two-year contracts, and she’s approaching that anniversary. Desperate to hang onto her career, she’s fashioned a crime-filled newscast she describes as "a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut."

Written and directed by Russo’s husband, Dan Gilroy ("The Bourne Legacy"), "Nightcrawler" feels like "Network Lite," without anyone being mad as hell and unwilling to take it anymore. The station’s anchors are either culpable or idiots. Only one KWLA employee ("Mad Men’s" Kevin Rahm) bothers to object to the graphic nature of Lou’s videos, but he does so with little more than a shrug, some winces and a few eye rolls.

"Nightcrawler" is at its absolute best whenever Lou is patrolling the late-night streets with Rick (Riz Ahmed), his increasingly concerned homeless intern/navigator. The delusional Lou treats their relationship as any corporate executive would, issuing traffic memos and putting off Rick’s performance review, even though it’s just the two of them. Once Lou starts earning real money, one carnage-filled clip at a time, and has traded in his Tercel for a gleaming red Dodge Challenger SRT, he’s still paying the naive but grateful Rick 30 bucks cash a night.

Gyllenhaal anchors "Nightcrawler" with a gonzo, transformative performance.

Sure, he’s saddled with a standard-issue, staring-into-a-mirror freak out, and Lou rarely feels like a real person. But there’s just something so very engrossing about his deranged-game-show-host personality.

"A friend is a gift you give yourself," Lou tells Nina during dinner, while extorting sexual favors from her, and you can easily see that emblazoned on a T-shirt beneath a caricature of his hollow eyes and psychopath’s smile.

"I like to say if you’re seeing me," Lou recites near the end, "you’re having the worst day of your life."


But, as a moviegoer, you’re also having a terrifically entertaining couple of hours.

— Christopher Lawrence is an entertainment writer at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com