“On TV It Looks So Real,” Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) says admiringly of an “If it bleeds, it leads” scene of carnage on the local news. A petty thief who steals barricades from work sites to sell wholesale–basically, he’s a fence fence–Lou finds a more lucrative line of work and, more important, a calling: shooting video of grieving widows, home-invasion victims and human roadkill for Los Angeles TV stations. In the TMZ age of instant, extreme sensation, that could mean big money and high ratings for Lou’s enabler Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a producer at struggling Channel 6. “I want something people can’t turn away from,” she tells Lou. “Think of our news as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”
Nightcrawler, a nifty thriller from screenwriter and first-time director Dan Gilroy, could serve as a gauge of how far media standards have fallen since James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News in 1987, when the big ethical test that William Hurt’s TV anchor failed was asking for a reaction shot of him misting up at a rape victim’s testimony. Nearly every anchor wears that empathetic frowny face now. Worse, networks keep playing the paranoia card for nonexistent crises. Think of Ebola as a screaming nurse trying to kill everyone in America.
Gilroy, though, is less interested in pointing fingers than in painting a figure of modern derangement: Lou. Inhabited by Gyllenhaal with creepy authority, Lou is a goggle-eyed loner with the demeanor of a friendly robot and precise elocution full of long sentences he has memorized from self-help websites. He sees himself as an artist–“I’m focusing on framing,” he says–who adjusts each element for compositional balance and maximum emotional impact. One difference: when he moves family photos on a refrigerator to be nearer the bullet holes or drags a fresh corpse into car headlights, he’s tampering with a crime scene. But being a true-gore cinematographer is just the start. What Lou really wants to do is direct–stage a violent encounter so he can get the exclusive footage.
Gilroy’s own director of photography, the gifted Robert Elswit, brings after-dark L.A. to gorgeous, menacing life, without hosing down the streets to make them glisten. He makes this one of the handsomest big-city chillers since the double blast of Taxi Driver and The Driver in the 1970s, and the perfect setting for Lou’s hollow charm, careering ambition and pestilential value system.
As Lou tells his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed), “I like to say if you’re seeing me, you’re having the worst day of your life.” But if you see him onscreen in Nightcrawler, you’ll have a closeup view of one of the movie year’s most compelling sociopaths. He’s something you can’t turn away from.
This appears in the November 10, 2014 issue of TIME.