Eager, with a large plastic smile, Louis Bloom, a budding news videographer, tells his television producer that he’s working on framing. She tells him the kind of video they’re looking for is a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut. Lots of blood, Bloom remarks.

“Nightcrawler” is all about framing – both through a camera’s lens and journalistically. The slickly composed narrative addresses fear-based media and how our news is warped by the need for sensational reporting. At the center of the film is the mysterious Bloom (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who suffers from an antisocial personality disorder, which makes him perfect for a career as a “nightcrawler,” a freelance news videographer. He just doesn’t like other people and has no qualms about getting into someone’s personal space, if it means he gets the shot.

When Bloom meets Nina (Rene Russo), a local television news producer, he tells her that he learns things by surfing the Internet. Later, he tells her she is one of his topics of study – you can learn a lot about a person from the Internet, he says. This is both creepy and intriguing to Nina, who’s curious and in need of a ratings boost to keep her job at the station.

To be a freelance news videographer one monitors a police scanner often at all hours of the night and tries to beat the police to the crime scene. This frustrating cat-and-mouse game leads to inconsistent but sometimes shocking results. Car wrecks, stabbings, arrests, shootings – there’s a lot of blood on the streets, but maybe not enough to satisfy Nina, who needs to feed her hungry audience regardless whether she follows the accepted canons of journalistic ethics.

Other videographers are already firmly entrenched in the bloody video business. Bill Paxton plays a nightcrawler named Joe Loder, an experienced news videographer who sees his business threatened by Bloom. Loder’s video van is impressive – he’s got the technical side of things figured out – but does he have the killer instinct? And as Bloom proves to be really good at the nightcrawler business, an antisocial personality disorder is better than the best cameras money can buy.

“Nightcrawler” is written and directed by Dan Gilroy (writer of “The Bourne Legacy”), who makes this film his impressive directorial debut. Working with the doe-eyed Gyllenhaal, Gilroy has crafted a very interesting and entertaining character in Bloom–a Travis Bickle-type (Robert De Niro’s character in “Taxi Driver”) but with no moral center.

Viewers will be reminded of the Bret Easton Ellis adaptation of “American Psycho” as Bloom methodically increases his bloody level of wrong-doing in pursuit of capturing the perfect crime. The gaunt and angular Gyllenhaal is a bit unearthly in the role. His fixed expression and wide, piercing eyes immediately put those around him on edge. He seems to be an old soul in a young body, almost like the alien played by Scarlett Johansson in “Under the Skin.” This leads to an engaging pairing with Rene Russo, who, at age 60, still makes a formidable sexy presence. Bloom offers her a proposal – he likes older women, he says.

The excitement of being a nightcrawler makes for some electrifying sequences. As Bloom develops his skill, a montage shows him on the beat–shooting video under various frightening conditions. Gyllenhaal’s expression only subtly changes as the action intensifies – it is a measured performance bound to garner awards notice. And the conclusion might bring you to the edge of your seat. Gilroy’s script is as manipulative as the fear-based news media he’s satirizing. And by cleverly always keeping fear somewhere in the frame, “Nightcrawler” is one of the smartest thrillers I’ve seen this year.

Editor’s Note: This review first appeared in print in the Times-Herald.

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