We know little about the background of Lou Bloom, the main character in director Dan Gilroy's disquieting new thriller, Nightcrawler.
An apparent loner, Lou lives in a modest Los Angeles apartment, where he spends lots of time on the Internet. His eyes have the unblinking stare of a surveillance camera in a convenience store. He's definitely weird.
Lou -- a gaunt-looking Jake Gyllenhaal in his best screen performance yet -- appears to have acquired his social skills and stilted speech patterns from a manual, something like "How to Talk to a Prospective Employer."
After a misguided attempt at landing a job, Lou happens upon an automobile accident where a freelance news crew is scurrying to obtain graphic footage.
It's love at first sight for Lou, who understands that he has found a calling that may allow him to abandon minor larceny and enter a world where his lack of inhibition will bring him great success.
In a twisted version of bromides such as "follow your bliss," Lou finds something he truly loves, filming other people's misery.
To launch his career, Lou obtains a cheap camera and a police scanner. He begins to ply his new trade -- at first to the derision of established freelancers such as Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). Loder mocks Lou's amateur equipment and general lack of savvy.
But Lou persists, bringing his first footage to Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a news director at a third-tier local station. Nina knows Lou isn't skilled, but she recognizes that he has the stomach to pursue the "money shot," the gory detail others might avoid.
No spring chicken, Nina's been around the TV block. She's entirely committed to the cliche often used to characterize TV news: "If it bleeds, it leads."
When Nina tells Lou how to approach his newfound craft, she offers this bit of gruesome advice: He should try for images that create the feeling of a screaming woman running down a street with her throat cut.
Fortunately, Nightcrawler isn't another lathered-up critique of the media, although it certainly takes its shots at TV's appetite for sensation-driven content.
No, Nightcrawler is more than an anti-media screed: It's a character study of a man who distorts what might normally be regarded as virtues until they disappear into a haze of amorality. Lou has a preternatural ability to focus and a ravenous hunger for absorbing information that he quickly puts to use.
Joining with cinematographer Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), Gilroy works from a dark and gleaming palette that avoids most of the usual LA visual cliches. Almost every shot is alive with the city's worst impulses.
Lou's nocturnal adventures -- some quite grisly -- unfold in near-hypnotic fashion: A shooting that leaves gaping holes in a victim, gruesome car wrecks and crime. Lots of crime. Lou specializes in the kind of brutal material customarily presented by news anchors with a caveat: "viewer discretion advised."
Along the way, Lou acquires an assistant (Riz Ahmed), whom he refers to as an employee.
In a bizarre comic scene, Lou promotes Ahmed's Rick from a $30-per-night intern to executive vice-president of what he regards as his burgeoning video news empire. Lou never acts as if he's running anything less than a big-time operation. Lou, of course, believes everything he says. He smiles, but never jokes.
Much of the movie's tension derives from wondering whether Lou is insanely ambitious or simply insane. At one point, he takes Nina to dinner. He's confident enough about his importance to her that he blackmails her into a sexual relationship. The nerd has become a predator.
When you play Nightcrawler back in your head, you may decide that it's guilty of wild exaggeration and that some of Lou's adventures defy plausibility. But when a movie holds you in its sway, as this one does, there's little point complaining.
Honore de Balzac told us that behind every great fortune, there's a great crime. Nightcrawler tells us that crimes great and small are often committed by those who, like Lou, believe in the absolute necessity of their actions.
Lou's a sociopathic creep, all right, but (heaven help us), he's a happy creep. A creep with a destiny.