nightcrawlerI didn’t know Jake Gyllenhaal had it in him.

Up to Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal had demonstrated to be a fine character actor (Brokeback Mountain), but as a leading man it lacked the spark of a Christian Bale or a Matt Damon. Turns out all he had to do was to pick slightly askew roles to crave his own niche.

Nightcrawler is Network for our times: Smaller (the setting is the cutthroat world of local news), dirtier (if it bleeds, it leads) and somehow even more pessimistic (in order to succeed younger generations must surrender ethics, not just rules).

Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal), a driven young man who knows “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by heart, runs into a career that suits his set of skills: Crime journalism. The absence of a conscience turns him into a force to reckon and finds a perfect match in a veteran TV producer (Rene Russo) who is desperate for ratings. It doesn’t take long for Lou to start juicing up his reports, first unprofessionally, later illegally.

Nightcrawler manages to do something remarkable: It makes L.A. look fresh. Shot mostly after dark, the City of Angels seems empty, except for unsavory characters behaving badly.

The depiction of local news is creepily accurate. Unlike the bland-to-a-fault Canadian newscasts (how are cat videos newsworthy?), Americans’ motto is “be afraid, be very afraid”. Gruesome displays of violence -barely masked by a disclaimer- are a valuable commodity. This is the environment in which someone like Lou Bloom flourishes.

Yet the main contribution of Nightcrawler to the conversation is the matter of job uncertainty. In a different economy, a dangerous element like Lou (who spits business concepts as excuses for his actions) wouldn’t reach the masses and his daring would be condemned, not celebrated.

Strangely, Nightcrawler is hurt by a terrible score by James Newton Howard. It’s unnecessary in large passages of the film and downright inappropriate at times (a peppy melody accompanies Lou Bloom’s rise in the news business). A soundtrack more like Drive would have been ideal.

Three and a half prairie dogs with crazy eyes. Nightcrawler opens today at Galaxy Cinemas.