Writer-director Bernard Rose's tense and pensive, Tolstoy-inspired, digital-noir dark showbiz farce "ivans xtc." is a potent, surprising piece of seat-of-the-pants cinema -- and not just because it actually makes you feel sympathy for a slimy Hollywood agent.

Set in the most furtive, cutthroat corners of the film industry, the movie opens by creating an atmosphere of contagious kinetic, vitalizing anxiety with a nerve-pinching score and metaphorical, dream-like images of a smoggy, hazy Los Angeles sunrise that has an ironic, asphyxiating urban beauty. The odd serenity of these sights is further offset by muffled sounds of hard breathing and the distant voices of emergency room doctors.

After this title sequence establishes the film's disquieting mood, the story begins with a bombshell that leaves its industry-archetype characters stunned -- but not so stunned that they won't immediately begin jockeying to take advantage. Powerful young talent agent Ivan Beckman (Danny Huston) died last night, quite suddenly of cancer -- or so the story goes. Within 60 seconds of getting the news, the other talent wranglers in his firm are gossiping about drugs. "What did he do," ask one rival who is repressing a savage, smug smile. "Freebase his face off?"

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