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‘Nightcrawler,’ when TV news goes bad: 3 stars

Jake Gyllenhaal will stop at nothing to get the scoop.
Jake Gyllenhaal will stop at nothing to get the scoop.

Ethics get strangled by opportunism in “Nightcrawler,” a hypnotic thriller about a sociopath worming his way into the world of Los Angeles TV journalism.

Never mind that we’ve seen this same “If it bleeds, it leads” pasting of the media for decades (think 1976’s “Network”). The film functions more as an indictment of the American workplace and a piercing character study, with Jake Gyllenhaal following up the fine work he did in the cryptic “Enemy” with his best-ever performance.

Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a smooth-talking scumbag whose loner qualities are masked by the sheer amount of knowledge he parades. None of this comes from experience; it’s from the Internet.

“Communication is the number one key to success,” Louis explains with a dose of Eddie Haskell politeness mixed with Tony Robbins life-coaching.

Up until this point, he’s used his persuasive powers for hawking items such as stolen manhole covers to unscrupulous construction site owners. Then he stumbles onto a serious traffic accident where he meets a freelance videographer (Bill Paxton) covering the tragedy. A new career opportunity?

Now armed with a cheap camera and police scanner, he formulates a business model: arrive at a crime scene, disregard the cops, artfully focus on the gore and sell to a local TV station. Louis also takes on an apprentice (Riz Ahmed) — more of a homeless guy, really — whose role is to navigate while they race to each new location. Before long, he’s filling up his hard drive with stories titled “Toddler Stabbed,” “Savage Dog Attack” and “Nursing Home Nightmare.”

Although the hollow-eyed, greasy Louis seems sketchy, he’s also rather efficient. That’s exactly the quality needed by Nina (Rene Russo), an aging news director who fears for her job stability. Through Louis, she spies a means to climb in the ratings. He just keeps getting shots no one else does. Of course, if he doesn’t like how a crime scene looks, he’s not opposed to rearranging it. Or, eventually, orchestrating it.

Longtime screenwriter Dan Gilroy (“Real Steel,” “The Bourne Legacy”) makes an impressive directing debut. Quite a family affair for Gilroy, with brothers Tony (“Michael Clayton”) producing and John (“Pacific Rim”) editing.

Also, the director is married to Russo. He coaxes one of the 60-year-old actress’s most memorable performances, especially during an expertly penned scene opposite the 33-year-old Gyllenhaal at a Mexican restaurant. She is only humoring his advances at first, but his silver-tongued negotiation skills ultimately convince and/or blackmail her into being his girlfriend. Quite the nightmare arrangement for working professionals.

Through it all, cinematographer Robert Elswit (an Oscar winner for “There Will Be Blood”) finds a fresh way to shoot L.A. — the most overexposed city in the world — with a colorful, eerie glow. Somehow, he applies a warm texture to the cold veneer. Elswit also demonstrates his prowess with action scenes, particularly a nighttime car chase (it sure feels like the whole story takes place in the wee hours) that might have turned cliché yet ends up exhilarating.

The visuals look great, but the audio is iffy. Specifically, the score. Veteran James Newton Howard (“The Hunger Games”) composes what sounds like either temp music used for editing or the soundtrack to a Cinemax thriller from the ’80s. It doesn’t even work ironically.

Fortunately, Gyllenhaal and Gilroy slowly, methodically build “Nightcrawler” toward a taut conclusion. A true “ratings booster” of a third act.

“If you’re seeing me, you’re having the worst day of your life,” Louis jokes about his job.

But this unhinged entrepreneur isn’t ever really joking.

‘NIGHTCRAWLER’

Rated R | Time: 1:57

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