Nightcrawler is a suburban nightmare. A dark and seedy aesthetic of shadowy scum silhouettes, neon late-night diner lights and camera flashes, director Dan Gilroy (responsible for co-writing the 2012 Jeremy Renner reboot of The Bourne franchise) has created a seedy, pulse-pounding depiction of downtown Los Angeles through the eyes of one of the city’s most psychotic men.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal; Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain) is the ultimate anti-hero. With the appearance of a vampire and the nocturnal habits and a metaphorical blood-sucking appetite to boot, Bloom is career-driven but dangerously ambitious. In his pursuit of wealth, success and fame, he encounters the world of ‘nightcrawling’ – freelance reporters who film crime scenes to sell to the highest-bidding news station for bulletin breaks.

Inspired and fired-up by the opportunities, he buys a cheap camcorder and police scanner and starts stalking the LAPD to the latest crime incidents, shooting the most graphic (therefore desired) footage possible to bargain with. He finds a mentor in Nina Romina (Gilroy’s wife Rene Russo; Outbreak, Thor), a money-hungry TV producer who sees the grisly footage supplied by her soon-to-be protege as a short cut to higher ratings and popularity figures.

As Bloom, Gyllenhaal is an unrecognisable revelation. Pale, sunken, emaciated and bug-eyed, he is unaffected by his unnatural surroundings. In fact, he is almost as brutal and grotesque as the subjects he films, walking the fine line between observing and participating. Gyllenhaal conveys complexity and intelligence through jargon-heavy dialogue and sickening subtle blackmail.

Nightcrawler is filled with its fair share of grainy, bloody paparazzi shots, but one of the more shocking scenes may just be the dinner date at the Mexican diner. Bloom convinces Nina to see him outside of the studio – as a friend. However, the innocent nature of the meeting soon becomes predatory when Bloom blackmails her into a sexual relationship. Sex for the footage, he thinks, is a reasonable offer as he needs to be sure she’s invested in the transaction. Conducted with a sickening smile, Gyllenhaal’s charm evaporates over the table then and there. The darkness has well and truly begun.

As lead characters, Bloom and Nina are despicable. Lou Bloom has no morals or redeeming features, and Nina’s ambition is just as tactless beneath her TV career veneer. Together, the pair revel in exploiting the American dream. They enjoy turning domestic bliss into a “house of horror” and frightening their demographic into submission, and by effect, blind loyalty.

The most sympathetic character in Nightcrawler is Rick (Riz Ahmed; Four Lions, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) – Bloom’s hapless intern. Strapped for cash and desperate to prove himself as employable, eager-to-please Rick gets thrown into the deep end by Bloom, who in attempting to corrupt him only makes him more susceptible to failure – a pet hate of Bloom’s.

As a viewer, you are unsettled watching Bloom torment Rick with technical jargon and sinister threats, but Rick’s untimely demise is the most terrifying of all. Without giving away what actually occurs, let’s just say Bloom initiates Rick’s accident… then films it. For money, of course. Chilling.

Tension is on high throughout, especially when James Newton Howard’s low, mumbling musical score sets in to create suspense. Cinematographer Robert Elswit makes the LA lights pop against the night-sky, and editor John Gilroy (yes indeed, director Dan’s brother) keeps up with the car chases with sleek precision cuts between shots and scenes.

Gilroy – making his directing debut – has a strong and disturbing message in the guts of Nightcrawler: news and current affairs programs are turning us into voyeurs. We have become desensitised to shootings, suicides, massacres and domestic violence because we consume it all. TV news stations saturate us with horror stories day-in and day-out. So, in turn, does this make us as grotesque as Bloom? Are we just as foul as the videos we watch? Gilroy might just have a point there…