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A 'Nightcrawler' creeps into L.A.'s media cellar

God help the victims if freelance videographer Lou Bloom – the “Nightcrawler” of the film’s title (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) – gets there first, before the cops and others in his ghoulish profession.

Which is shooting the night’s worst doings.

Lou won’t care all that much if they’re alive or dead.

Let’s say, in fact, there’s an automobile accident. If there’s a battered and bloody body near the totaled car, Lou is liable to pull on its legs to get it closer to the streetlight so that he and his trusty camcorder can get a better shot.

When, a few minutes later, he’s talking to Nina, the beautiful news director (Rene Russo) of low-rated L.A. station KWLA, he wants to be able to lay the perfect offering at the altar of her profession’s succinct catechism: “If it bleeds, it leads.”

And Lou, in a very short period of time, has become awfully good at pictures of bleeding. That’s because he has no ethics whatsoever.

When we first meet him, he’s filching copper wire and fancy watches from security guards (don’t ask about the guard who actually owned it. The movie never tells us his fate. Such omissions are essential to its deeply unsettling and creepy authority).

We suspect from Lou’s bulging, unblinking eyes that he’s mad as a hatter from his very first close-up, but it’s the movie’s strategy

to give him an involving success story that grows into what Gyllenhaal’s performance – and face – show us in its opening minutes.

Gyllenhaal is brilliant. But then he usually is – just like his sister Maggie. Being director’s kids (their father is Stephen) is probably not incidental.

Our boy Bloom is a born entrepreneurial capitalist. It’s just that one day, as a lookie-loo at a highway accident, he sees a freelance videographer take some footage. Lou learns from the fellow (Bill Paxton) that in minutes he’ll be selling that footage to local TV news for its 6 a.m. report.

That’s enough for Lou. That’s all he needed as a siren song summoning him to a new profession and a brand new life – the one that all those self-help books, tapes and such have prepared him for. He’ll repeat their formalized lessons all through the film in his semi-psychotic, self-invented versions of business theory. He’ll be especially rigorous when he’s actually flouting them for his own sociopathic reasons (beware the doctrinaire; they’re even money to be hiding a passionate preference for chaos and no values whatsoever).

Lou is instantly part of a whole subculture of freelance videographers in L.A. – the paparazzi and ambulance and cop chasers who listen to police scanners and try to show up before everyone else for the choicest dramatic footage of night doings to sell at a fat price to a hungry TV news director.

Russo plays Nina, the news director in the terrific first film to be directed by 55-year-old screenwriter Dan Gilroy, who is the brother of Tony Gilroy (the superb “Michael Clayton” and somewhat lesser “Duplicity”) and the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Frank Gilroy. Russo, in life, is Mrs. Dan Gilroy, which is why we’re again seeing an actress who has been much-missed by some of us for quite a while.

Not surprisingly, no attempt is made to disguise how much older she is than Gyllenhaal, despite Bloom’s insistence on negotiating Nina’s carnal favors as the ultimate price for his increasingly lurid and horrifically compelling night footage.

What Lou is doing is certainly related to journalism but distantly. What Lou is doing is reality TV spectacle for TV news to use. It’s journalism without scruples, rules, decency or, indeed, any humanity at all. It requires a cat burglar’s nerve and a good eye for the dramatic equivalent of Nina’s mythical TV news ideal: “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”

We recognize the subculture we see in the semi-horror film “Nightcrawler” as the sibling of what we can see every night on the news and, especially, in a jolly version on “TMZ.”

But the most important thing to understand seems to have thus far eluded those heaping thoroughly justifiable praise on this as one of the year’s better films. The method we’re watching Bloom develop for his success is the one developed by one of the greatest figures in American photography.

His name was Arthur Fellig and he was professionally known as Weegee (said to be a corruption of “Ouija” due to his uncanny ability to arrive at crime scenes before everyone else). The incredible imagery that Weegee captured with his Speed Graphic camera and his tabloid freelancer’s sensibility made a whole generation rethink photography’s relationship to art and journalism both.

What we now stuff our eyes with in our daily appetite for the vilest spectacle is enough to force us to rethink, again, in a work of art everything that sometimes pretends to be “journalism.”

A work of art, for instance, called “Nightcrawler,” which can be sold on Halloween weekend as a seasonal creep-out but is actually a terrifically memorable film in a weekend that also is seeing the local opening of “Birdman” and, Sunday on HBO, Lisa Cholodenko’s first two installments of “Olive Kitteridge” (which will be completed Monday. See Sunday’s TV column in The News).

What a terrific filmmaker’s party this Halloween weekend has turned out to be.


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