I’m fairly sure Jake Gyllenhaal wakes up most days thanking his lucky stars that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was such an unmitigated disaster. The 2010 clunker failed to make back even half of its $200 million budget, immediately scuttling any and all plans Walt Disney to make it a long and storied franchise.

Since that time, though, Gyllenhaal has put forth arguably his best work (Brokeback Mountain notwithstanding), including mesmerizing turns in the excellent films Source Code, End of Watch, and Prisoners. Who knows which, if any, of those he would still have been able to tackle had he been hunkered down in Morocco filming Prince of Persia: And Another Really Long Subtitle, Prince of Persia: A Supremely Wordy Subtitle, and Prince of Persia: Why are Subtitles So Long Anyway.

His work in Nightcrawler, the latest entry in what we’ll call ‘The Gyllenhaal Renaissance’, is freakishly brilliant. As Louis Bloom, a sociopathic LA loner who starts his own freelance news video business, Gyllenhaal’s performance may make you actually start to question his sanity– the same way you wondered about Anthony Hopkins after watching The Silence of the Lambs or Christain Bale in American Psycho. But I choose to just think Gyllenhaal (like Hopkins and Bale) is just a supremely talented actor. It’s less messy that way.

The movie itself, which rakes the TV News business over the coals even more than Network and Anchorman combined, doesn’t quite match the level of its star, but taken as simply a showcase for acting ability, it’s a fascinating watch.

We first meet Bloom pilfering a chain link fence to trade for a few bucks at the local scrap metal yard, but as he’s driving home, he passes an accident on the freeway. And when a video freelancer (Bill Paxton) whizzes in to take a few shots before zipping off to sell it to the highest-bidding TV station, Bloom immediately realizes his calling and jumps right into the business with reckless abandon.

Before long, Bloom is not only becoming a welcome pseudo-member of the news team at the local bottom-feeder TV station, he’s also letting his success go to his head– not only demanding bigger paychecks but also having the cojones to sexually extort the news director (Rene Russo). By the end of Nightcrawler, however, those actions seem tame; we eventually find him arriving at crime scenes even before the police, giving him ample time to move the corpses so they’re in just the right light.

It’s here, just as Gyllenhaal starts taking his game to a whole new level, that Nightcrawler unfortunately begins veer off track, treading dangerously close to not only being preposterous but flat-out repellent. Perhaps my broadcast journalism background keeps me from being even half as cynical about the profession as director/screenwriter Dan Gilroy, but the movie starts to feel almost like a grotesque satire once Bloom arrives on the scene of the home invasion, which dominates the second half.

Gilroy, for his part, does keep the suspense as taut as a banjo string, and his feel for the seedy underbelly that is late-night Los Angeles gives Nightcrawler a terrifically spooky atmosphere. The film will be remembered, and it certainly should– though it won’t be as much for its content as for its character… and the man who brought him to life.

3.5/5 stars