For aspiring freelance video journalist Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the only way to win the lottery is to make the money to buy a ticket.

For aspiring freelance video journalist Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the only way to win the lottery is to make the money to buy a ticket.

Bloom’s rhetoric is one that strikes at the crux of the American dream. If you’re going to accomplish anything in life, you’re going to have to work for it. It’s a lesson that countless parents, teachers, bosses and mentors have drilled into the heads of their children, students, employees and mentees.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea of working hard to achieve a goal, but as Nightcrawler so effectively relays, ides can always fall into the wrong hands.

Nightcrawler opens with the perfect representation of its lead character. Bloom, a bottom-feeding criminal, is stealing fencing from a lot. He gets caught in the middle of his actions by a security guard. Lou turns on his charm and pretends to be an innocent yuppie lost in the bustling city of Los Angeles. Once he realizes that the security guard is just that and not a true enforcer of the law, Bloom attacks the watchman, steals his silver watch and makes off with the construction supplies.

The scene is Bloom in a nutshell. He knows how to put on a show, but inside, he’s might just be a cutthroat opponent on the life’s ladder (and a creepy one at that).

After this jarring opener, Nightcrawler somehow makes this sewer rat a compelling character – one of the most complex characters put on screen this year.

The film kicks into gear when, after stumbling upon a car crash rescue, Bloom notices a group of video journalists getting footage of the scene. When he inquires one of the videographers, called “nightcrawlers,” what he’s doing, the gruff fellow (Bill Paxton) explains his job and presses hard the idea that “if it bleeds, it leads” – one of the supposed ideals of broadcast journalism. Bloom asks if he is hiring, and is turned down.

At this point, the audience has no idea if Lou Bloom wants to be a broadcast journalist. Just a few scenes earlier, Bloom tries to use his “lottery ticket” stump speech to get a job at a construction site. He’s turned down there because the site’s crew leader sees through Bloom’s shade and knows he’s just a rotten thief.

Bloom is simply a fast-talking mosquito looking for a fresh arm to latch onto.

He finds one at a failing broadcast station partly run by Rene Russo’s Nina, a news director desperate for an edge-up on the competition. Equipped with an unhealthy dose of confidence, cruddy video equipment and an “intern” named Rick (Riz Ahmed), Bloom decides to take his monstrous motivation into the world of freelance videography. He’s going to make the money to buy his twisted lottery ticket.

Nightcrawler has been compared to Martin Scorsese’s 70s classic Taxi Driver, and it’s not an off comparison. Bloom is akin to Travis Bickle in that both are loners with odd ideas in their head. Bloom’s ideals rest in the drive to be successful, but his morals don’t exactly enter the equation. He’s willing to do whatever’s necessary to get ahead.

Writer/first-time director Dan Gilroy takes a big leap of faith by centering a movie on a character as detestable as Bloom. However, the risk pays off in spades. What Lou lacks in conscience he makes up for in fascination. Gilroy writes some crackling dialogue for Bloom to spit out, and Gyllenhaal handles these corporatized monologues with ease.

Bloom sounds like a broken record of self-help books, business-related Google searches and stereotypical company men. He can motivate his intern to succeed in the field, impress a news director with his knowledge of the business and charm random strangers with his polite gestures.

Gyllenhaal, in one of the year’s best performances, slides into the role of Bloom with intensity and conviction. The actor handles all the fast-talking with ease, but it’s the nuances that stick. Bloom has a pair of creepy eyes, and Gyllenhaal presses in Lou’s intense look for nearly the entire film’s runtime.

Even at his gentlemanly best, there’s still a hint of shadiness and malevolence with Bloom, and it all comes from the eyes. Gyllenhaal nails every aspect of his performance, making Bloom an intoxicating fellow to follow for two hours. Few actors have turned in such dedicated roles this year.

The film’s pacing leaves you on the edge of your seat one moment and cramped down into the fold in others. Gilroy makes this a handsomely-crafted feature, complete with crisp cinematography from the great Robert Elswit and a mood-appropriate score from James Newton Howard. The supporting cast all fills their roles nicely, especially Russo and Ahmed.

Nightcrawler can be a hard film to stomach at times, but its message is sound. Outside of the strong craftsmanship, the film is a scarily magnetic character study of a guy who dreamed the American Dream in the absolute worst way possible. The performance from Gyllenhaal is for the ages.