Usually, when I write film reviews and analysis, I do it straight after I have watched the film for the first time. However, with Nightcrawler, I felt I needed to allow this one to percolate a little; really sink in. If ever there was a film for me to say, “thanks, I hate it” to, this is the one. It’s not the film—the film is stunning to look at, compelling and gut-wrenchingly horrifying. This kind of thing sticks with me way longer than any real ‘horror’. I hated it in the sense that it scares me just how awful human beings can be.
The first thing that struck me though was just how beautifully shot this film is. Every frame captured that haunting and vast feeling that you only get at night in a big city when no-one (on the right side of the law) is awake. The music felt so out of place, inappropriately uplifting—completely perfect too, for it makes you feel like you are a stranger in someone else’s world. You don’t belong here, you don’t understand it, but you kind of want to because it feels magically uneasy.
It was one of two films that Gyllenhaal starred in around the same time, about the symbiotic relationship between violent criminals and the news media; Zodiac being the other.
Gyllenhaal played a major role in the film’s production as well. Both written and directed by first-timer Dan Gilroy (who went on to direct Velvet Buzzsaw, also starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Gilroy’s wife, Rene Russo). The movie took just a month to shoot. Its promotion at the time was pretty groundbreaking; the characters were given Facebook and Twitter profiles, “real-life footage” of some of the violence Lou witnesses was shared on Craigslist.
Gilroy not only directed the film, he also wrote the screenplay and it was somewhat different from the screenplay he intended to write. He had seen a collection of lewd and lascivious photographs by a photojournalist named Weegee, also known as Arthur Usher Fellig. Weegee spent much of the 1940s going out into New York City at night and taking photographs of the goings-on there, selling the more sensational photographs to the newspaper. An intended biopic of one of the first paparazzi became Nightcrawler when Gilroy relocated to Los Angeles, where he noticed an unusually large amount of violent crime that was shown on the nightly news, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
Nightcrawler was released in 2014, way before the bizarre media circus in the US and UK began playing out. If I’d seen it when it was first released, I probably would have thought it over the top, but now I am utterly convinced that it can and does happen.
Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) wasn’t always a stringer. His resume includes petty theft, most recently stealing from a construction site in downtown Los Angeles. Challenged by a security guard, he overpowers him and takes off, but not before he steals his wristwatch. Lou sells the construction materials at a local scrapyard, and pretty much begs the manager for a job, but gets nowhere. This opening scene with Lou and the security guard is a mini-allegory of what the entire film is about. The very first words out of Lou’s mouth are:
In fact, at that particular moment in that particular place, Lou is not lost at all. He knows exactly where he is. On a much grander scale, however, Lou is very much lost. He doesn’t speak like a regular person. Whenever he has more than one sentence to say to something he slips into a cadence, rhythm and tone that sounds more like a motivational speaker or, even more so, like a guy in front of an audience forced to sell himself because he knows the product he’s trying to peddle is crap. But, hey, it is all about the packaging, right? Because if you don’t like what’s beneath the wrapper, you can just throw it away and buy something else.
Lou is lost because he has bought fully into the new American dream. Not the old one about finding a good job, buying a house, raising a family and not having to worry about class dictating the terms. The American dream Lou is pursuing is the bumper sticker dream. There is no soul in there, and everything he thinks is deep sounds like something you’d see on a motivational poster or a commercial. Lou’s first language is television.
After failing to get a job, Lou drives home and finds his attention diverted by a car wreck on the other side of the street. He pulls over to get a better look at what is happening and sees police officers rescuing a woman from the mangled car. He also sees a group of photojournalists—known as stringers—filming the action. One of them comes over to Lou and tells him that they can make a lot of money selling the footage to local television news stations.
Lou is immediately captivated. He steals a bicycle and pawns it, exchanging it for a video camcorder and a police radio scanner. He is now prepared for his job as an ambulance chaser. After a couple of false starts, he finally manages to film a crime as it is happening, recording usable footage of a carjacking in which the victim is killed. He contacts KWLA 6 News and sells them the footage. They are impressed. Morning news director Nina Romina (Renee Russo) calls Lou and tells him that the station will always buy footage of violent incidents, especially those that take place in affluent, “safe” and “white” areas.
Lou has no scruples. It is not in his nature to be a stringer in a legal and ethical way and thinks nothing of tampering with crime scenes if he thinks it will make his what more impactful and shocking. He even moves the position of a body to capture the injuries more effectively or in the right light. He becomes well-known in stringer circles and sells a lot of footage to Nina, which enables him to purchase a better camera. He also buys a new car—a totally inappropriate for the job, flashy red sports car— which gets him to crime scenes more quickly than anyone else, and crucially it gets him noticed.
Lou is attracted to Nina in a strange sort of way. It’s not particularly mutual, but he uses his status as a stringer to put pressure on her to go out on a date with him. He threatens to take his footage to another television station if she says no, and he demands that she sleep with him too. For Nina, this is an offer she cannot refuse because she wants to continue to beat out rival stations for the audience share. While Nina herself is ruthless and ambitious to the point of being immoral, I still felt kind of queasy watching this ‘buying’ of her body. She felt she couldn’t say no because he was right in saying that without him she would not be at the top of her game. This was a transaction not too different from ‘the casting couch’. Neither of them had any real fondness for the other; its a power play, one-upmanship and a trophy win—the opposite of what love should be like. And while Nina never looked particularly upset about having to do this, she must have had feelings of worthlessness, in addition to having to sleep with someone so weird and creepy. She just knows that this is part and parcel of what she has to do now. There is no fight left in her. In a time before the #MeToo movement, (and still today, of course), women often felt they had no other choice. Roll with it and learn to love it.
“A friend is a gift you give yourself.”
Lou quotes author Robert Louis Stevenson when he tells Nina that “a friend is a gift you give yourself.” The quote is right, but the meaning is ironically inverted. Stevenson implied that when you make a friend, you have enlarged your own sense of self. Lou means that a friend is a shiny new toy to enjoy, use and toss away when no longer wanted.
At every opportunity that he is given to make meaningful friendships—albeit with people who are somewhat savoury characters themselves—Lou spurns their advances. He just doesn’t have the social skills to do it. He can’t care for anyone else, he cares only for himself. A houseplant is the closest we see him give any thought to, and he nurtures it because it cannot give him any feedback. The plant won’t tell him what a massive fuck up he is, it just needs him to stay alive. For Lou, it is the perfect relationship.
Lou hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), mainly as a driver to get him to crime scenes quickly. He talks to Rick appallingly, belittles everything he does, appearing to be an expert in the field. He picks Rick because he is a loner with no previous work experience. He knows that he can get away with pretty much anything because Rick is desperate for money and homeless. But Lou goes way too far.
They arrive at an incident before even the police do. It is a home invasion in a very affluent neighbourhood, and Lou not only gets footage of the gunmen fleeing the house but then goes inside the home to film the homeowners in the immediate aftermath, lying dead or dying. This is where the news team begin to divide; some feel that this highly raw, unsanitized scene is crossing the line, but Nina doesn’t have a line to cross. She has a story to break and a handy lack of ethical backbone that enables her to go ahead and break it. Lou wants more money and a credit on the footage. This backfires a little; he comes to the attention of the police, who question him about his involvement in the home invasion. Lou edits his footage and gives Nina a shortened version without the footage of the gunmen running from the scene, but later he and Rick track down the men, hoping to follow them and then call the police so that they can record the arrest on camera.
They follow them to a restaurant; Lou calls the police, whose arrival begins a shoot out. One of the gunmen is killed, but the other escapes. The cops chase the escapee, and Lou tracks the police, recording all the while they are doing so. The gunman’s SUV swerves and crashes, and Lou urges Rick to film his body inside the vehicle. It turns out that he is not dead and he shoots Rick several times. As Rick lays dying, it becomes clear that this is precisely what Lou wanted to happen. Lou films his final moments; it’s his revenge for daring to turn against him—Rick being the only person who could tell the world the truth about him.
Nina is now sold on Lou. She is in awe of the footage, and this makes her way more attracted to him. When her team learn that the random home invasion was a drug deal gone bad, she withholds the fact from both the story and the police, because it has more impact if it is a random attack on innocent, well to do white people. All empathy for her having to sleep with Lou has dispersed now. These two were made for each other, in the most dangerous of ways.
The cops also want Nina’s footage as evidence, but she stands by her rights and the freedom of the press, refusing to hand it over. Lou is also questioned, making up a tale about the men in the SUV following him and Rick, rather than the other way around. Detective Frontieri knows this is a lie, but she has no proof, and cannot arrest him. Lou ends up on top; he hires a group of interns, buys them all vans, and expands his salacious empire.
“Do you know what fear stands for? False Evidence Appearing Real”
As well as being a largely voyeuristic crime thriller, the film also takes a jab at how the news is reported. Could this be the first time that the issue of fake news was brought to our attention in film? Maybe, and the way in which news anchor Nina selects news stories that she knows will draw in her target audience, instead of simply reporting the news as it happens, definitely supports the contention that the nightly news is more about interpretation and less about the reporting of facts than it used to be. In days gone by, when families would gather around the television to find out what was really going on in the world.
The scariest thing for me about Nightcrawler is that Lou Bloom is not a psychopath or a sociopath nor does he have any other mental condition or personality disorder—though he does exhibit certain narcissistic tendencies. Lou comes with too much willingness to pursue violence to be termed a victim of society, but nevertheless, he is what he is less because he was born that way and more because he was moulded that way. And there is a very real chance that this is happening to people throughout society right now. Those who are complacent about the awful things we are witnessing, even going so far as to support those in power who boast of their racist ideology, their hatred of the poor and minorities. Those who sit idly by while their governments lock children in cages, mock people with disabilities, and collude with the enemy.
In many interviews director/writer Dan Gilroy has explicitly outlined his intention to create in Lou Bloom a character who cannot be dismissed at the end in the way that deviance from the norm is typically portrayed in film; he is not a sociopath or a psychopath.
Gilroy has consistently fought back against the approach toward the film that Lou’s behaviour can be attributed to a flaw in his own system. The system which is flawed here is capitalism and more specifically the kind of unregulated capitalism that allows supply and demand more power than morality. More and more people like Lou Bloom could become the norm in society if we don’t fight against it. If he were ‘merely’ a psychopath, steps could be taken to ensure that he was weeded out and treated. Unfortunately, Lou is wholly integrated into the capitalist system. He has learned the rules, applied them to the specifics of his job and exceeded expectations. You could argue that Lou’s rise up the ladder of success could still have been regulated if Nina had represented an obstacle rather than a facilitator. But the only way that could happen is if Nina herself was a deviance from the norm. The fact that other News stations compete for the services of Lou and others like him, proves this is not the case. Neither Lou or Nina are sociopaths or psychopaths, but rather manifestations of the worst elements of unregulated capitalism in society.
One of the guiding principles of filmmaking has been that when a villain represents a deviation from normalcy, they seldom get a happy ending. When a villain gets away with it in a movie (excluding horror icons, of course), it is usually because they are representative of the system at large. That Lou gets this rare happy ending for a villain is a criticism of society for helping to create Lou.
Nightcrawler ends with a gut-punch. Lou is not just successful, but triumphantly so. He gets away with murder to all intents and purposes, without ever getting his hands dirty himself. Any human that could live with themselves for not helping those in need, or using them as human shields to assist in their rise to power, really are the worst monsters of all—the monsters living among us, the monsters who are in power. I sound dramatic, I know, but am I really? What we see here on the small screen is playing out in a bigger picture across the world.
Nightcrawler is a must-see movie. It definitely won’t lift your spirits, but it is crucial for people to watch and reflect upon, especially today. Yes, this is an extreme example of the horrors of humanity, but it is when nothing is shocking anymore that we really are lost.