Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler.

Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Louis Bloom is the very definition of serpentine in Nightcrawler, a scathing look at TV news and the lengths producers and stringers will go to for ratings and a payday.

Stealing wire fences and manhole covers for a living, and desperate for some real work, Bloom (Gyllenhaal) happens upon a car accident where an invasive cameraman is filming bloody footage for a quick buck. Bloom—an isolated man who spends his days studying the Internet—pawns a stolen bike, gets himself a crappy video camera and a scanner, and thrusts himself into the business of crime-footage videography.

He starts small, grabbing footage at auto wrecks and butting heads with Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), a seasoned videographer who doesn’t like newbies treading on his territory. Louis eventually finds himself in the presence of Nina (Rene Russo), a bloodthirsty TV-news producer struggling to find her way on a low-rated station; she pays Louis a couple hundred bucks for his bloody footage. Against the wishes of her co-producers, Nina leads with Bloom’s video on the morning news, and an unholy alliance begins.

Bloom hires an assistant in Rick (Riz Ahmed of Four Lions), who clumsily navigates as they race through the streets of Los Angeles looking for carnage. Things escalate from filming car crashes and fires, to filming shooting aftermaths and other crime scenes. When things start to slow down, Louis becomes unrelenting in his attempts to find stories. In short, there is nothing he won’t do to get the footage. Nothing.

He’ll move bodies to frame a better shot. He’ll withhold footage from the cops after entering a residence to film murder victims. None of these actions, however, compares to what he will do in the event that an employee tries to negotiate for a raise. He’s a far cry from the puzzle-solving, earnest news investigator Gyllenhaal played in Zodiac. He represents the complete degradation of media from something sensationalistic into something that is pure evil.

Russo’s Nina is, in many ways, as psychotic as Louis. She is reckless, encouraging Louis to dig deeper and pushing him into more deranged territory. Russo hasn’t been this good in years.

Paxton, who used to specialize in wild-man, gritty roles before Twister and Titanic, relishes the chance to get down and dirty again. He only has a few scenes in the film, but those scenes are true standouts. Ahmed gives the sidekick role plenty of dimension. He gets the laughs when they are supposed to come—but he also manages to create a frightening tension in his showdowns with Gyllenhaal.

This is the directorial debut of Dan Gilroy, who also penned the screenplay. Gilroy clearly doesn’t have a positive opinion of the broadcast-news machine. The folks putting together the news in this movie are something akin to cannibals and vampires waiting in the dark for a vein to be severed. Louis is a genuine movie monster.

Gyllenhaal lost a bunch of weight to play the greasy Louis, and he achieves a physical creepiness that matches nicely with his character’s infected soul. Louis is darkly funny, especially when he berates Rick or blackmails Nina. He’s also sinister and deeply scary in a very Travis Bickle/Taxi Driver sort of way. Gyllenhaal is excellent here; this is his second great 2014 performance after playing twins in Enemy. The guy is really stretching out.

According to Nightcrawler, gone are the days of dignified anchormen and heroic news gatherers. The tie-wearing talking heads and scrappy field reporters have been replaced by bloodsuckers and sycophants, with the likes of Louis Bloom leading the sick charge.

Nightcrawler is playing at theaters across the valley.