2018 Film Essays

Real Blood, Fake News: Dan Gilroy’s ‘Nightcrawler’

“More relevant today than ever before.” It’s a line that gets used alot, one which has been applied to a great many films and books, and one which is almost never intended positively. It came up a lot when The Handmaid’s Tale hit TV and as 1984 began flying off the shelves again. It could sit handsomely on the blurb of Network, Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange or Citizen Kane. It belongs to stories which pack a serious satirical payload, delivered either through a bleak reflection of our present world or in a vision of the dystopia that today’s worst impulses might lead us to.

In Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) achieves success by selling the world all the things they won’t admit they want. He plays to their prejudices and indulges their fears. He knows that every conversation can be a negotiation if you only care about getting what you want. He knows just how to package sleaze to put everyone at ease. He smiles politely, lives alone and harbours a will to violence that endangers anyone who wanders into his proximity. He is more relevant today than ever before.

Lou first seems like a petty criminal, roaming the night in a boxy Toyota with a trunk full of chain-link fencing and manhole covers, his face a shrunken, bug-eyed picture of insomnia and bad intentions. When a security guard interrupts his plundering, Lou beats him down and steals his watch. When a Lycra-clad cyclist peddles into this periphery, the next scene is of Lou riding it around a pawn shop. He is a criminal driven by passing impulses that go unimpeded by empathy. Like a magpie, he sees something shiny and takes it. Lou doesn’t seem to have much of a plan, it’s enough just that something can be taken and that he wants it. His decision-making process doesn’t require other factors.

As Lou’s car slithers through L.A.’s darkened streets one fateful night, he stumbles upon a car accident. Flames rage across the vehicle’s hood and a bloodied woman screams while paramedics struggle to free her from the twisted metal. Lou stares silently on as a van screeches to a halt beside him and two cameramen fly out, thrusting themselves into the heat of  the life-or-death struggle, the bulbous eyes of their cameras shoved callously into the centre of the action.

Lou stares on like a man caught in an epiphany. He has found his people — others who crawl through the city in the dead of night, unconnected to the lives of those around them, uninterested in anything other than their own ambitions. He has found his new career.

This development moves the television news industry to the middle of Nightcrawler’s satirical crosshairs. It depicts what was designed as a public service looking to inform and educate, commercialised and reduced to just another form of entertainment. Innumerable news stations battle tooth and claw for the attention of a viewer who never forgets that a thousand other shows are only a click away. To remain competitive, they have to keep their audience in a state of perpetual terror. They have to convince them that their streets are full of savages, that the danger is already at their doorstep, that their “neighbours” are just strangers close enough to hurt them. Their TV provides a window onto a world of nightmares and comes to define their reality more than their own lived experience. More than anything, it convinces them of the need to keep watching. Unless they tune in again tomorrow, they’ll be helpless.

Lou and his peers keep the airwaves stocked with images of car-jackings, break-ins and murders. Viewers eat up his blood-spattered footage over breakfast and spend the rest of the day digesting it, with irrationality and prejudice flowing slowly out into their bloodstream. Pretty soon, the moment they hear the show’s opening theme, they know that rape, murder — it’s just a shot away.

When Lou first arrives with footage of a car-jacking, the programme’s director Nina (Rene Russo) quickly dredges up two other cases from the same year and calls it a “Crime Wave.” Lou’s big break involves a house-breaking in which the lavish home of a wealthy family in an affluent neighbourhood is broken into by armed men, leaving three dead bodies in their wake. This is exactly the story Nina needs: clear, claret-soaked proof that nobody is safe, that even the most idyllic picture of family life can become a bloody “horror house” in the blink of an eye. Later on, it is revealed that the victims were large scale drug dealers and that the attack was in fact an act of gang warfare. This newsworthy revelation is immediately dismissed by Nina because it is not the story she wants to tell. Presented with new information which contradicts her narrative, she elects for the “alternative facts” which re-enforce it.

The idea of a news station with a political agenda is nothing new, but it’s something which strikes an even deeper cord at a time when the phrase “Fake News” has become so common; a time when single corporations can force local anchors across a nation to deliver their political opinions in a zombified drone. When heads of state can promote the channels that spread their brand of misinformation while undermining those that criticise their regime. When people concoct fake footage and photoshopped images to disparage teenagers who lost their friends in high school massacres. The idea of a crooked media is nothing new, but in recent years it has become a much more concerning reality.

The direction in which Nightcrawler’s news station leans and the specific narrative it looks to dispense has also grown timelier in the few years since the film was first released. In one of Lou and Nina’s first conversations, she explains exactly what kind of content her show will pay for:

“We find our viewers are more interested in urban crime creeping into the suburbs. What that means is a victim or victims, preferably well-off and/or white, injured at the hands of the poor, or a minority.”

Individual instances which fit these parameters can be used as signifiers of a larger story, acting as emotionally-charged parables. The story of one “poor” or “minority” perpetrator can use them as an avatar for their entire class or race. They tell the viewer to see people that don’t look like them as “Others” and to fear them. Lou himself explains fear as “False Evidence Appearing Real.” It is not important whether the lives of white, middle class people are imperilled by roaming gangs of poor minorities. It doesn’t matter that, factually speaking, violent crime is declining. It doesn’t matter that they are statistically unlikely to every be the victim of a violence, and that if they ever are, it will most likely be another white person who attacks them. What matters is how they feel.

And the show tells them very clearly how to feel. “Suburban” and “Urban” are euphemisms so thin that even the least perceptive viewer will see through to their real meanings. Just as Lou maintains his composed demeanour and deadened, mechanical style of speech as he abuses others, these shows know precisely how to package racism like impartial journalism.

Again, none of this is entirely new. There have always been sections of radio, TV and print news that played host to deeply conservative voices looking to bend the facts towards their own prejudices. When Nightcrawler was released in 2014, they were still regarded by many as cooky characters on the fringes of the political discourse, playing mostly to the scattered handful of lonely nuts that failed to see through their transparent falsehoods. Fox News was both a major channel with huge viewing figures and an easy punchline, lampooned regularly on mainstream shows like The Simpsons and The Daily Show. To those outside of the core audience, voices like these were regarded largely as unpleasant but relatively ineffective, serving only to stir up more anger in the hearts and minds they had already won.

Viewed again in 2018, the intervening years have made Nightcrawler’s depiction of this kind of “news” feel a lot more prescient. In the US, a presidential candidate rode a wave of alienated white rage and racial fear to the nation’s highest office. In the UK, the same sentiments were tapped to secure the Brexit vote. In both cases, getting caught in a lie time and again did nothing to diminish the authority of those playing to populist fear and resentment. They both told the same story: our borders are breached and the criminals are coming, act now or we will all be overran. Mexican caravans and Syrian refugees. People who do not look like you. It is the same story Lou’s footage tells to the frightened inhabitants of L.A.’s wealthy suburbs, only blown up to a national scale.

There is no doubt that much of the film’s venom is directed towards this toxic industry: any environment in which a Machiavellian terror like Lou can thrive can consider itself condemned. But the film’s subject is as much Lou himself, offering a dark character study of a certain kind of man. With all the time he spends lurking in the shadows, who Lou really is gets slowly revealed. As his true nature comes into the light and his true face comes into focus, viewers may begin to recognise it.

Lou’s favourite catchphrase is “If you want to win the lottery, you’ve got to earn the money to buy a ticket.” He uses it to indicate his own work ethic, rolling it out first to compliment the owner of a scrap yard for having reached “the top of the mountain.” He shows the same deference to anyone occupying a position higher on the corporate ladder than his own, a true believer in the “by the bootstraps” idea that successful people are self-made. By this reasoning, these people’s wealth and status are proof of their wits and hard work, thus the poverty of others can be taken as a clear sign of their laziness or weak character. It is a position which wilfully ignores the current that carries those from privileged backgrounds on their way to success and which those from lesser means are forced to swim against. Those in power speak from the highest platform with the loudest voices, so they can self-mythologise however they see fit.

Though his means are initially limited and his lifestyle is far from glamorous, Lou exhibits a degree of privilege from the beginning in the way he crosses boundaries. Nightcrawler’s opening scene has him ignoring “No Trespassing” signs to harvest more scraps. He later ducks under police tape, and sneaks into victim’s homes to obtain better footage. When it comes time to sell his work, he just wanders into the office of a local station with no introduction, apparently unbothered by how out of place he appears. Boundaries which would deter others barely seem to register with him. When he is confronted in the film’s opening, he doesn’t hesitate for a second at the accusation that he is doing something wrong. Instead, he makes casual conversation and quickly flips the blame to the other side, completely denying the security guard’s authority over him. The capacity to walk through the world this way — unimpeded by boundaries, unafraid of consequences, unwilling to accept blame — is a privilege that belongs only to some.

As Lou begins his career in photojournalism, he quickly forms a strong professional relationship with Nina, selling his footage exclusively to her. The moment he senses that this arrangement has become indispensable, he uses it as leverage to pressure her into having dinner with him. He takes her to a local Mexican restaurant, quoting online reviews and complimenting her with as close to a casual air as someone as relentlessly intense as Lou is able to manage. And then, in the dispassionate language of a business transaction, he explains that she must sleep with him if their arrangement is to continue. He points to Nina’s expiring contract and the high pressure period she is about to enter. He floats the possibility of her losing her healthcare. Nina is shocked and angry, decrying the total immorality of what Lou is doing, and he doesn’t even flinch, continuing to smile as he explains how trade can benefit them both.

The only other personal relationship in Lou’s life is with his assistant Rick (Riz Ahmed). He is homeless and has to hop three buses just to make the job interview, so the power balance is clear from the first meeting. Initially offering the role as an unpaid internship, Lou concedes to give him $30 a day to act as his navigator and later operate a second camera. As the months go on, Rick pushes for more money but is rebuffed time and again by Lou, who explains that his new assistant is simply not in a position to negotiate. They both understand the importance of the job, and that there are limited options. The laws of supply and demand offer no reason for Lou to pay Rick a cent more, and those are the only laws he has any interest in.

Nightcrawler builds to a bloody finale in which Lou sets up a shoot-out between the police and a pair of gangsters, staging it inside a diner to achieve maximum carnage. He tells Rick to get out of the car and film the ensuing battle from another angle. When Rick refuses, he calmly explains that “I can’t make people do things. You have a choice.” Just like Nina had a choice. Just like scores of young actresses had a choice when they went to meet with a studio executive about a role and found themselves in a hotel room. Just like young men growing up in ganglands have a choice about whether they get involved.

Rick can choose to remain homeless. Nina can choose to lose her job. They can choose to give up on everything they’ve worked for because a predator has made them his prey. They can choose to remain law-abiding, broke, alone and vulnerable.

This illusion of freedom is integral to a mindset that wants to depict victims as the cause of their own problems. It wants to ignore the infrastructures in place that limit their choices, the power structures they are expected to push against on a day-to-day basis just to survive or make a living. Rick and Nina do have a choice, but the choice is not an equal one. Their lives will be ruined unless they say “yes.” And Lou knows this. The double-speak entailed by this kind of “choice” allows him to manipulate, endanger and abuse those around him without breaking the veneer of a model citizen. After all, he is not forcing them to do anything. They have a choice.

The scenes of Lou at home paint a fairly pathetic picture. His apartment is cramped, bleakly decorated and visibly unloved. He sits in the dark, lit by a single lamp and the flickering, sickly light of the TV. Whether on the couch or riding through the night in his beat-up car, his alienation from the world around him is palpable.

When Lou does interact with others, he displays a total lack of social skills. His peppy, jargon-laden speech sounds like he is reciting things that he read online. As he talks, his shoulders rise, he shrinks into himself, his hands claw in uncomfortable grasping motions. Lou is immediately obvious as someone who has never found people easy, someone who has never had many friends. The easy, unkind way to describe him would be as a “loser.” One might imagine that he knows this.

With Nina, Lou finally has the attention of a woman which his lack of charisma and unsettling intensity had previously denied him. More than that, he has power over her, just as he has power over Rick. Lou clearly enjoys making money but seemingly more for the power it affords him over others than for anything he might buy with it. The one luxury item he allows himself is a shining new Dodge: both a faster vehicle for his break-neck driving, and a big, red “fuck you” to the underpaid assistant forced to sit inside it and guide them to their next destination. When a rival offers to absorb Lou’s company, he gets to savour a sumptuous put-down: “I feel like grabbing you by the ears and yelling “I’m not fucking interested. Instead, I’m going to go home and do some accounting.” Through the success he finds in his new profession, Lou is able to live out the power fantasies that festered through his years of isolation. He is a nerd who has suddenly found a power source that will allow him to become a bully.

In a later scene, after Lou has failed to deliver on the promises he made to corner her, Nina angrily berates him. While he had power over her, he flaunted his talent and his importance. Lou was the provider, Nina relied on him, and he could take what he wanted because of this. When he fails to meet his own arrogant standards, she bellows his failures back at him in the middle of the studio. Lou sits quietly through Nina’s outburst and returns home. Catching sight of himself in the bathroom mirror, he screams maniacally into his reflection, bug-eyes bulging in pure murderous rage. The criticism was fair. It came from someone with far more reason to resent him than he has to hate her. Yet he explodes.

A young white male, isolated from society, connected to the screens of his TV and computer more than any breathing person. A well-mannered shell hiding a fragile, furious ego and a complete lack of empathy. In a different story, Lou might as easily have directed his bile onto far right forums or firearms. He could as easily have become a mass shooter or a sexual predator.

Ultimately, what Lou does become is a kind of Randian hero, obtaining wealth and power by playing capitalism’s game better than those around him. Like a modern-day Machiavelli, his amoral world-view doesn’t see the ethical shades of his actions, only the gains and losses they might occur. As Jack Sparrow once drawled, “The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do.” That the man behind the make-up transpired to be abusive points to the way in which watching Nightcrawler again in 2018 shines what is perhaps not different light on Lou’s outlook, but a much more intense one. In the four years since its initial release, the abuses of those in positions of power have moved to the forefront of our cultural discourse. As the boundary between politics and entertainment media have blurred to the point where success can allow access to the highest level of the other, both have been found to hide predators of all kinds amongst their ranks. Elsewhere, more isolated young men harbouring the same potential for violence have marched with torches, launched campaigns of digital violence and directed their rage down the barrel of the gun. Afterwards, we hear about how nice they were, how quiet, how polite.

Lou Bloom speaks for the soul of all these angry men. He moves through the world with the same privileged ease, houses the same fury beneath the same benign exterior and seeks power over others in just the same way. He feels that he is entitled to everything he wants and will do whatever it takes to get it. As the film ends with the camera panning back, with Lou’s sleek new company vans speeding out into the night, and James Newton Howard’s synthy score rearing heroically back up, the message is clear: so long as things stay as they are, people like Lou will continue to thrive.

Ross McIndoe (@OneBigWiggle) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow. Other bylines include The Skinny, Film School Rejects and Bright Wall/Dark Room.

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