There is praise that sounds like an insult, even when it's not, and in that vein may I offer: Nightcrawler has outstanding eye lighting. Like, it's all I could think about, in scene after scene after scene, how commanding and how unconventional the lights being trained on the main character's eyes were. This shouldn't be surprising, for it was after all shot by Robert Elswit, who can be one of our most insightful and capable cinematographers when he's sufficiently inspired. Which isn't something that's happened in quite a long time, or at least not to the degree that we see here.

Eye lights aren't just some nitpicky technical shit, either. That is to say, they're absolutely that. But in the case of Nightcrawler, it not just technique for the sake of technique, but a key part of how the movie creates its wonderfully tetchy feeling of moral turpitude. You see, this is the story of a man, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has no soul. There are details around all of that, and some hardcore, rage-filled commentary on the news media, but that's basically the heart of it. He has no soul, no inner sense of decency whatsoever, and this is chiefly expressed through two things (three, if you count the immoral and illegal things he does during the narrative): Gyllenhaal's performance, surely the best work of his career, which mechanistically strips away all his humanity and replaces it with uncomfortably hungry, unyielding stares, and a precise, clipped way of speaking that makes his every utterance sound like he's playing it off of a tape recorder, and his knack for standing too close and then silently filling the gap anytime the person he's talking to tries to make space. All of this contributes to the sense that this isn't a human being we're watching, as much as something like a robot lizard in person shape. The other thing, the wholly visual thing, is the eye lighting. Sometimes, it's not apparently there at all, and the shocking flatness of his face rips all the life right out of him. Sometimes, it takes the forms of diamond-sharp flecks of bright white reflected in his eyes that leaves him looking like a demonic thing who has just had an "aha!" moment. At any rate, he never looks relatable, we can never look him in the eye and feel good about what we see there. For an artistic medium whose most powerful tool is a well-placed close-up, that's as powerful as it gets.

"Nightcrawlers", in what may very well be an accurate nod to industry lingo, are here presented as the freelance videographers trawling the nighttime streets of Los Angeles in the hopes of finding a splashy disaster to film and sell to the morning news stations: car crashes, murders, anything as long as it's ghastly and full of death. Louis learns of these magical people one night after completing his work, which consists for the moment of sneaking into construction sites and stealing material to sell on the secondary market. Watching with rapt awe at the no-nonsense Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) capturing several angles on a freeway car fire, Louis commits the very next night to chasing down these grisly stories on his very own, using his insistent, mechanical fixation on the rules of some How to Win Friends and Influence People-ish websites to forge a partnership with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the news director at one of L.A.'s crappier, poorer stations, and fashion a puffed-up little business model for himself that requires taking on the helplessly innocent Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant and protégé. By virtue of lacking even the smallest regard for the dignity of the suffering, Louis quickly gains a reputation for capturing the bloodiest, bleakest footage of any of the city's nightcrawlers. And this starts to turn into something even more curdled when he starts deliberately obstructing the police in order to goose his footage.

Writer-director Dan Gilroy (brother of writer-director Tony, and twin to editor John, who cuts Nightcrawler) doesn't try to hide his emphatic disgust with the "if it bleeds it leads" attitude of news producers or the audience consuming that news, and the film keeps dancing around being so sour and cynical as to be unwatchable. The ace quality of most of the acting (Ahmed strikes me as being a little too wide-eyed and easily dazzled for what the role requires) helps with this, as does Gilroy's positioning of the film in firmly generic territory: this eventually turns into a pretty straightforward thriller, though of a very clever construction where the tension is not generated by wondering what will happen to the protagonist, but what the protagonist is going to do. In committing to this, Nightcrawler is maybe a little bit guilty of playing the same game it accuses all of its characters of playing, turning brutality into entertainment, though the film's generally limited interest in lingering over Louis's footage helps with this.

All in all, it's a pretty nervy, grimy blast of soul-darkening nastiness, from the crystalline night photography to the rage-flecked theme to the way it manages to make every single character unlikable, if only because so many of them are willing to like right past Louis's obvious inhumanity as long as he's providing for them. And Gyllenhaal's fiercely off-putting but ingenious performance is a perfect nucleus for the rest of it to orbit. There's enough kineticism in the visuals and blocking, and snappy enough plotting, to keep the film from being quiet as much of a nihilistic drag as everything I've described so far, but still enough of that nihilism that the film never loses (nor tries to) the stagnant reek of the gutter. A bit vicious, a bit gleefully blackhearted, but a film that's overall quite impossible to look away from or shake afterwards.