117 minutes/Opens tomorrow/****1/2
The story: Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a street hood, stealing what he can while hustling for employment in a Los Angeles that has no need for men like him. Seeing a freelance news camera operator in action at a horrific road accident, he decides to also become a "nightcrawler". He sells footage to station news manager Nina (Rene Russo), a woman trying to prop up ratings in a tough market.
Capitalism and criminality collide in this, a blackly comic take on the American economy, portrayed as a system that bleeds citizens dry and spits them out onto the streets.
The free market's docile minion, the news media, also gets a lashing for abetting the system with manufactured fear and outrage.
Writer-director Dan Gilroy's most interesting achievement is not his message or his politics - there are dozens of films wagging fingers at the political system and its ally, the news business.
But few representations of society gone wrong have the pungent realism of this work, its forward rush of plot or the nail-biting build-up of suspense.
Too often, issues-driven movies put the message first, then dress it up with mouthpiece characters. Here is the villain, there are the victims and along comes the noble hero.
Gilroy does not make that mistake.
Making his feature debut (having earned writing credits for The Bourne Legacy, 2012; and Real Steel, 2011), he bets that the audience would prefer watching the story unfold through the eyes of the maladjusted, possibly sociopathic Lou Bloom (Gyllenhaal), and he is right.
Bloom is no anti-hero; he is barely human. He personifies the capitalist drive.
After hurting people, he rationalises the act by regurgitating aphorisms culled from the biographies of successful businessmen.
Contact with news manager Nina (Russo), only reinforces his belief that success comes to those who divide humanity into predators and prey, and he aims to stay out of the latter category.
British actor Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, 2010; The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 2012) offers a winning performance as the nervy Rick, Bloom's employee- accomplice and the only character with a conscience. A trait which, in Gilroy's world, is enjoyed only by the very rich or the very stupid.