Jake Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, a petty thief in the Los Angeles dark whose shamelessness — specifically his lack of anything like a moral compass — becomes an enormous asset when he manages to get a foothold in the straight world. Pawning a fancy bicycle (was it stolen?) in exchange for a camcorder and a police scanner, he joins the ranks of the video shooters who prowl at night, angling for close-up footage of bloody meat on the city streets.

Unencumbered by a gag reflex or a pesky sense of boundaries, Lou reliably acquires grisly footage that makes him a favorite of Nina Romina (Rene Russo), news director on the lowest-rated station in town. More improtantly, it gives him leverage. Lou craves power and seizes every advantage available to him, whether that means exploiting his schmuck assistant with a lousy $30 nightly pay or extorting sexual favors from Romina for sex. It turns out that being a sociopath is an excellent qualification for succeeding as a businessman.

I understand why people like this. For much of its running time it’s the kind of low-key character study plus cultural resonance that 1970s Hollywood excelled at; I assume Taxi Driver was an model if only by way of inspiration. But Lou Bloom is nowhere near as compelling as Travis Bickle, largely because where Scorsese and Schrader worked at really getting inside Travis’s pathology, Nightcrawler writer-director Dan Gilroy is content to have us simply gawp at Lou’s breathtaking chutzpah from a safe distance.

The second half is a downward spiral, stacking up narrative coincidences and ho-hum detective work in order to get Bloom to a place where he can go well and truly off the rails, effortlessly enlisting the help of the L.A.P.D. in his master plan. I’m not saying the film’s pessimism about human nature is unwarranted, but it doesn’t make for good drama when your story hinges on little more than the increasingly repellent and horrifying behavior of a main character whose audience is tipped to expect the most repellent and horrifying behavior from him.

Sheer craft elevates the whole thing for a while. Gilroy has gotten a lot right, especially in the film’s engaging first-half depiction of Lou as a preternaturally fast learner. Robert Elswit’s coruscating nighttime cinematography is bewitching, and Gyllenhaal delivers a wily, tightly wound performance. (He hardly blinks, which is spectacularly unsettling behavior coming from a movie character in close-up.) But Lou Bloom is so relentlessly, even cartoonishly self-serving from square one that his general character arc is never in doubt.  That a satire of capitalist principles (which are intuitively grokked and exploited by this lamentable clown) vies for attention with the foregrounded screed against voyeur journalism only blurs the focus.

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