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There’s a cliché in journalism: “If it bleeds, it leads.” In the competition for eyeballs, stories about sensational crimes and disasters get priority over socially relevant information and analysis.

That cynical formulation is at the heart of “Nightcrawler,” a thriller that’s both socially relevant and sensationally entertaining.

In a market as vast and competitive as Los Angeles, there aren’t enough news crews to cover all the murder and mayhem, so the local television stations rely on freelancers to get the grisly footage. These “nightcrawlers” are cold-blooded cousins to the paparazzi, armed with police scanners and video cameras if not press credentials and ethical standards.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, never better) is neither a journalist nor a photographer when he wanders into this nighttime realm. He’s an exceedingly polite street hustler who meets a cameraman (Bill Paxton) at an accident site and immediately buys some cheap equipment to start a new career.

After Louis outhustles a competitor at the scene of a fatal carjacking, he sells footage of the dying victim to KWLA news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo), who encourages Louis to keep up the good work.

He memorizes the handbook of police-scanner codes, hires homeless Richard (Riz Ahmed) as his navigator and maps out a business plan like the most zealous self-improver in a night-school class. That plan includes bedding or blackmailing Nina, who initially resists the flirtations of the much younger Louis but melts when he produces gruesome footage of white suburbanites murdered by Latino burglars.

With his nerdy posture and needy-intern smile, Gyllenhaal is astonishing. The cryptic character is a SoCal kin to Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver,” an invisible man who is bent on bettering himself but incapable of true human connection. In the script by debut director Dan Gilroy (the screenwriter of “The Bourne Legacy”), Louis’ sales-pitch jargon is both pathetic and funny, but it turns chilling when he pushes reluctant sidekick Richard into the danger zone.

Gilroy vividly evokes both the LA exteriors and newsroom interiors, and the action sequences are fraught with tension.

Like an alternate version of “Network” in which Faye Dunaway cannibalizes the conscientious William Holden character, “Nightcrawler” cleverly dispenses with any debate about the tyranny of ratings and the erosion of privacy. With no obstructions in the pipeline from violence to viewer, we’re forced to feel that the nightcrawler is us.


What “Nightcrawler” • Three and a half stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 1:57 • Content Violence including graphic images, and language

Joe Williams is the film critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.