Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a creepy guy with obvious psychotic tendencies. Just look at that mop of hair, long, hollow face and those big, staring eyes. He's got no job, no direction in life, and not a hell of a lot of common sense. He ekes by via the fast cash he gets from tearing down metal fencing around L.A. and reselling it to junkyards.
Then he meets his first nightcrawler. In TV news jargon, that's someone who goes out after dark, following leads from police scanners and, video camera in hand, rushes to crime — or accident — scenes, gets bloody footage, then hightails it to whatever local TV station will pay the most to put it on the air first.
Lou is fascinated when he sees freelance nightcrawler Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) in action, and because he doesn't have an original thought in his head, decides he wants to do the same thing. A scanner and camcorder purchase later, Lou grabs some accident footage, barges into a TV station, does some fast talking, and soon meets Nina (Rene Russo). She's the news director on the "vampire shift" who knows what her viewers want — graphic urban crime and accident video — and since her station is the lowest-rated in the city and it's sweeps time, Lou is hired on the spot as a freelancer.
She also unknowingly unleashes a monster. "I'm a quick learner," he brags to her, even before he has any idea of how to do what she wants him to do. Lou hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), a shiftless fellow who just needs a job, to be his navigator as he maniacally drives around town following bloodshed.
The film hints that there are no scruples among nightcrawlers, then brazenly shows it when Lou breaks into a shooting scene, steals footage, and gets it to Nina. He wants to impress her, and receives the words "Outstanding work, Lou," in kind.
Joe has long been busy chasing the grisly stuff, and now so is Lou, and their paths keep crossing. When Lou beats Joe to an accident scene, Joe offers him a job. Around the same time, Lou builds up the courage to ask Nina out on a date. Both requests are answered with a no, and while Joe just shrugs it off (not wise when you're dealing with a psychopath), Lou doesn't take it well. He knows Nina is in a desperate spot at work, and calmly tells her, "You need me and I want you." It's hard to figure out exactly what drives this guy, but he sure is frighteningly persistent.
The film kicks up a notch in creepiness when it's revealed that there are no lines Lou won't cross to get what he wants, then goes further by presenting more lines popping up right in front of him. One involves him beating the cops to a major scene of carnage, getting footage of dead bodies in a private home, and of the killers (who don't see him), and beating it out of there before the cops arrive.
It's the point in the film where we realize, once and for all, that Rick knows the difference between right and wrong, but Lou is oblivious to it. There's a regular supply of shocking plot turns and unbearable tension, as well as an atmosphere of dread, and all sorts of violence. Then there's Lou, just a man doing his job — happy, smiling and insane. ♦