Nightcrawler: The scariest film of the year is already in you.
Just in time for Halloween on Friday… a smart, pulse-pounding thriller that slashes, shoots and splatters while blurring the line between observer and participant. I’d encourage ANYONE to see Nightcrawler, ASAP. The casual viewer will enjoy a sinister plot of progressively disturbing beats, and the art school film critic can take pleasure in knowing that a Godard walks among us.
Nightcrawler is a self-reflexive critique contained inside a film ostensibly about filmmaking (or at least how networks cut their morning news segments to maximize ratings and how gruesome overnight footage abets this). However, a close examination will show us that the film is actually a fantastic, surreal examination of the dirtiest aspects of our society—namely the methodical exploitations propping up our apparent successes.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a driven young man desperate for work who discovers the high-speed world of L.A. crime journalism. Finding a group of freelance camera crews who film crashes, fires, murder and other mayhem, Lou muscles into the cut-throat, dangerous realm of nightcrawling—where each police siren wail equals a possible windfall and victims are converted into dollars and cents. Aided by Rene Russo as Nina, a veteran of the blood-sport that is local TV news, Lou blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story.
What’s frightening about Nightcrawler?
There’s our protagonist Louis Bloom (played by the inscrutably talented Jake Gyllenhaal), an unstoppable force of amorality, a machine of finely calibrated sociopathy, and, to boot, a man of devilishly awkward charm. Hollywood loves villains, but Hollywood doesn’t often portray an antihero of Bloom’s perspicacity and disgrace, let alone follow them on a journey of increasing success.
Louis Bloom is very, very bad.
Louis Bloom is blatantly lie to his friend so that he can be murdered, “accidentally,” by an armed and desperate fugitive, then film this friend dying, and then immediately sell this footage to make money-bad. Louis Bloom is cut the brakes on a competitor’s van (the man had just offered Bloom a fifty-fifty split of their larger combined earnings), film this subsequent accident, and then sell the footage-bad. Louis Bloom is follow a known murderer to a fast food restaurant, but wait till then to call the cops, then lie that the man is armed, so that officers show up en masse and armed, scaring the fugitive, leading to a shootout and high speed chase that injures and kills multiple bystanders and cops, just so he can capture ALL of this on tape, and sell ALL of this footage to the network, intentionally delaying their meeting to jack up an already exorbitant price because the network’s contract is up within the week and their ratings are low-bad. Like I said, Lou Bloom is very, very bad.
But all Louis Bloom wants is to do a good job.
Who can blame a man for wanting to be the best in his line of work? When you see what he has to do to succeed, though, you’ll begin to question why the line of work Bloom pursued even exists in the first place. Oh right, because you and I love compelling images: and since pornography only exists freely on the Internet, violence will have to suffice for network TV.
Louis Bloom’s story is about how we tell stories.
A casual viewer might see Nightcrawler as a “fictional” film about a terrible, amoral sociopath who sells questionably obtained footage—he breaks into numerous houses and rearranges objects, etc. to create shots that impart empathy—to an immoral producer at a struggling network. But where is the antagonist? A naive viewer will say it is the other nightcrawlers, hunching over bootleg police scanners, listening in to find out where the next victim lay, racing to mangled crash scenes, clawing over each other to capture the best angle. Wrong. These are competitors, not a force pushing against our main character. In this case, director Dan Gilroy’s antagonist is actually us, society, the people who demand these crude (“Imagine a woman, running down the street, with her throat slit,” Nina tells Bloom), calculated (Bloom is paid money if he captures minorities killing white people in rich neighborhoods, but the network won’t pay for footage of a shooting in Compton), purposefully constructed images (Russo refuses to break news that would contradict her fabricated story about a random murder spree in the Southland; Bloom discusses how the elements of an image are what draw a viewer in). Anyone who’s sat through an econ course will tell you, demand for Bloom’s product is what sets the market price, amirite? And what’s antagonizing Bloom is that only the horrifying, the despicable and the misleading image seems to be carry any value.
Louis Bloom wins, wins… and wins.
The scariest part of Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is not so much WHAT we see onscreen, it’s a matter of how closely we identify with Bloom’s rationale. What Bloom wants, we want: recognition of our abilities from those we admire (he repeatedly tells Nina, an inspiration, how much her positive feedback means), increased compensation (Bloom starts with a beat up hatchback, upgrades to a new Ford Mustang, and finishes the film with two outfitted news-vans), and sexual satisfaction (Bloom implies that he sleeps with Russo as part of their “negotiations”, or “manipulations, depending on how you look at it). The resistance to Bloom’s steamrolling, what makes the movie WORK psychologically, is that we like the results, and technically Bloom doesn’t perpetrate many of the violent ends. But the twisted, appalling means in which Bloom manifests his success, oh, it’s so sickeningly enjoyable.
We, the capitalists, the exploiters in denial, we are the implied antagonist of this film. Kudos to Gilroy for writing and directing such a visually and dramatically satisfying film. For the casual viewer, there’s plenty of splatter and suspense throughout Bloom’s mounting exploits. And for the avid film buff, prepare yourself for a critique inside a critique, a film that explores everything that Zizek via Lacan has beaten over your head for nearly two decades, that when man comes too close to his real jouissance, there are deadly consequences, and that when man becomes what he symbolizes (in this case, the embodiment of the American Dream), the Real and the Imaginary overlap in perilous derangement.
Gilroy’s work is 2014’s complement to Robocop. Whereas Paul Verhoeven criticized the soul-sucking, dehumanizing side effects of rampant corporatism, Nightcrawler focuses on the darkness inside each of us individually. In Verhoeven’s case, his satire was crushed by the MPAA forcing him to cut back on the gore. He wanted the blood and guts to be wildly over the top, so the audience could understand that the film was a joke, a truth emerging from a mangling of the actual. Nightcrawler succeeds in this realm, however (hope so, they had nearly two decades and Verhoeven’s moral to learn from), in part through smart writing that invokes obvious parable, but also because of Gyllenhaal’s gifted performance—Bloom is TOO SMART to be taken seriously; the way he spouts off his perfectly calibrated rationales become comical, impossible to believe, and horrifyingly persuasive. If you’re not in on the joke, though, let me warn you: this film might seem to portray Law Enforcement as a branch made solely of incompetency. And frankly, given the scrutiny of Gilroy’s work, I don’t believe that to be the case.
Special note for Los Angelenos: pay attention to the shifting backgrounds throughout the film. Gilroy specifically shot everything where it actually takes place in L.A. (when we’re in Echo Park, we are literally “in” Echo Park; when we’re at a crash at the North end of Coldwater, we are right there in Studio City). That is, until Rene Russo’s character has her Symbolic “break” (film geeks, you’ll catch the moment I’m referring to, it’s her crisis moment in Act 3). Here, Gilroy uses reverse cuts to imply that Acapulco in Silver Lake is across the street from the KTLA building in Hollywood. That such artful, obscure technique might be incorporated in a widely distributed film made me wonder: is Gilroy, part of Hollywood, talking specifically TO Hollywood through the backgrounds of his film? What does it say when a director spends more money (reducing potential profits) to capture shots that no greater audience member is neither going to notice, nor be able to appreciate, while critiquing the very notion of profits? Perhaps Dan Gilory truly is a moral artist at work.