NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Jeremy
It's late at night in the city of Los Angeles. Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) has broken into a train yard to try and break off a chain link fence. An officer approaches him and demands to see some ID. Lou keeps his cool and shows it to him, and then he attacks the man and kills him. Lou later takes the broken up fence to a scrapyard and sells the fence to the yard's owner while trying to negotiate a higher price. He then asks the owner if he is hiring, since he can start immediately. He uses his motto, "If you want to win the lottery, you gotta have the money to buy a ticket." The owner rebuffs him and says he won't hire a thief.
A few cop cars pass Lou on the road. He pulls over to see what they're investigating. A car is on fire, and people are inside. A van of nightcrawlers - guys who record violent incidents at night for profit - pull up, led by Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). Lou sees Loder filming while two men pull a woman from the vehicle. Lou approaches Loder and asks about the job. Loder says it's a "flaming asshole of a job." Lou asks him if they're hiring and Loder says no.
Lou steals a bike on the beach the next day and goes to pawn it off. The shop owner will only go as far as $700, but Lou asks for $800 in store credit so he can get a camcorder and a police scanner. Using these, he listens to reports of incidents in the area. He pulls up to multiple crime scenes and is told to leave by the police. He manages to get good graphic footage of a man who was shot to death after a carjacking. The police turn Lou and another nightcrawler away, the latter who angrily curses Lou out for ruining his shot. Lou follows the man as he calls his employer and overhears how much the man is set to make off the footage.
Lou goes to the Channel 6 news station and meets news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo). He shows her and another station producer, Frank Kruse (Kevin Rahm) the footage, with good shots of the man dead and paramedics trying to revive him. Lou only makes $250 off the footage, despite trying to go way higher. He once again tries asking for a job or an internship position to no avail.
Lou interviews a young man named Rick (Riz Ahmed) for an internship position, making it seem like he's heading some big news station. Rick is practically homeless and struggling to find work, and he has little experience in this sort of field. Lou simply asks him if he has a phone with GPS, and Rick says yes. Lou hires him on the spot and tells him he'll get paid $30 a night.
Lou makes Rick read off directions to him as they go looking for incidents. Lou drives like a maniac and makes Rick nervous. He accidentally gives him wrong directions, and they arrive to the scene of a home fire too late, as paramedics have already wheeled the victim away. Lou is furious with Rick.
People are gathered around a shooting in a suburban home. Lou sneaks in through the back and into the kitchen where he rearranges pictures on the fridge to focus on the bullet holes and a shot of the neighbors talking to police. Nina loves the footage but Frank says it looks like Lou broke in. She still uses it.
Eventually, Lou and Rick are able to get a lot of new footage of horrifying incidents (with headlines like "toddler stabbed" and "drunk mom hits biker"), which Lou continues to sell to Nina. He gives her an impassioned speech about how he's come up with his business plan and how he has hoped to make a name for himself, which seems to almost move Nina.
Lou stands by Nina when two anchors from her station are set to report on one of the incidents that Lou got on camera. He mentions a Mexican restaurant and invites Nina to go with him. Nina declines, as she doesn't want to compromise their professional relationship, but Lou implies that he'll stop giving her good footage if she says no.
Loder finds Lou and offers him a spot on his team to deliver them some good footage. Lou turns him down, even as Loder persists. However, Lou very firmly rejects him, to Loder's anger.
Nina joins Lou at the Mexican restaurant. He makes it clear he wants more than a professional relationship but she says this is just a courtesy date. He reminds her that he station is the lowest rated station in the area, and she needs him just as much as he wants her.
Lou and Rick fail to arrive in time for another incident as Loder and his team beat him to the punch, leaving Lou with weak footage of a stabbing in Corona. Nina is pissed at him. Loder's coverage hits Channel 2 in all it's glory. Lou smashes his bathroom mirror in fury. He goes to Loder's house and cuts the brakes on his van. This later leads to Loder crashing the van into a pole. Lou and Rick arrive in time for Lou to film Loder being wheeled away in a gurney, choking on his own blood.
A big break comes when Lou and Rick happen upon a shooting/break-in at a large mansion. Lou sees two men fleeing the scene. He enters the house and films the dead bodies in each room. One victim is on the ground gasping for breath as Lou walks around him. He delivers the graphic footage to Nina, at which point he makes a demand for $15,000 for the footage, and not a cent lower, and he also wants the anchors to give him credit as Video Production News, and for him to be recognized as a credible news source. He makes it abundantly clear to Nina that he's calling the shots now. The anchors at the station report on the footage while Nina tells them what to say.
Two detectives, Frontieri and Lieberman (Michael Hyatt and Price Carson), arrive at Lou's door to question him about the footage and if he saw the two men. He doesn't give a clear description of the men but he tells them that they were driving an SUV.
Lou brings Rick to catch the killers and phone the cops. Rick demands a raise if he's going to keep tagging along on these sorts of missions. He meekly asks for $75 a night when Lou states he could've gone higher. Together, they find the killers and follow them to a restaurant. Lou phones the cops and says one of them has a gun. Two cops arrive and enter the place. Two more show up, and the killers begin to shoot at them. The cops shoot the larger killer dead while the other one gets away. Lou and Rick follow them in an intense chase. The cop car is hit by another car. Another cop car catches up to the killer and they crash. Lou stops the car and goes to get his shot. He tells Rick that the killer is dead. Rick goes to film the killer, only to find him alive and with a gun. He shoots Rick three times before crawling out. The killer aims his gun at the cops and is shot dead. Lou films his corpse and then films a dying Rick. Rick says Lou knew the killer was alive, and Lou implies that he did this since Rick threatened to compromise this whole operation. Rick dies.
Lou brings all of this to Nina, who is enchanted by all the gruesome imagery. Detective Frontieri comes to the station and demands to have the footage as it is evidence, but Nina refuses to surrender the tapes. Frontieri later interrogated Lou, knowing he withheld information from them since he knew what the killers looked like. Furthermore, he remains unmoved by Rick's death, but he sticks by his word without flinching, and he is left free to walk.
Frank approaches Nina and says the break-in at the mansion was really a drug robbery since there were multiple bags of cocaine found in there. He says this is the real story but Nina is focusing on the car chase and accident. Frank tells her she sounds like Lou, to which she replies that Lou has inspired them to reach higher.
Now, Lou has established Video Production News with news vans and three interns. He gets then ready with their tasks, and adds that he won't make them do anything he won't do himself. With that, he guides them into the night to snap more footage of what the people really want to see.