Friday, June 2, 2017

If It Bleeds: Nightcrawler's American Dream

by Rob DiCristino
“The true price of any item is what someone is willing to pay for it.”

Only a few days after starting a small video news production company — essentially a camcorder and a police scanner — Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is already interviewing his first employee. “Sell yourself,” he tells Rick (Riz Ahmed), the nervous young man across the booth. “I’d like to know about your prior employment and hear in your own words what you learned from each position.” Lou is professional, direct, and engaging. He promotes his company as “a fine opportunity for some lucky someone,” making a minimum-wage job more appealing by assuring the applicant that they’ve been hand-picked for a unique position by a successful conglomerate. Lou projects business savvy through his decisive tone of voice and intense eye contact. He makes Rick feel like he’s in good hands, like the three bus rides he took to get to the interview (and every bus ride to every interview for every job that came before) were finally paying off. This is the culmination of Rick’s life of struggle, he thinks, proof that good work and perseverance really are the keys to success.

The truth, of course, is that Lou is full of shit. There is no company. There is no intern program. Lou isn’t a producer; he’s just a shady guy with a ponytail and a Toyota Tercel. Earlier that week, he was mugging security guards and selling stolen manhole covers. But what Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler masters so well is the way free market capitalism allows for — in fact, encourages — faking it until you make it. Lou becomes a television news stringer not by taking accredited courses or navigating corporate ladders, but simply by seeing other stringers in action and creating a position for himself. He isn’t deterred by naysayers (including the late Bill Paxton as veteran stringer Joe Loder) who mock his consumer-grade camera and late arrivals at crime scenes. Lou has committed himself to this profession and will achieve the goals he sets for himself through research, focus, and ingenuity. Free of the basic character defects plaguing the likes of Joe and Rick (insecurity, greed, ego, etc.), Lou is a perfect blank slate on which to paint a glorious American success story.
Enter KWLA News and their overnight producer, Nina Romina (Rene Russo). In Lou, Nina finds a partner willing to get up close and personal with the bloody carnage her viewers crave: “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut,” she tells him during their first meeting. “We find our viewers are interested in urban crime creeping into the suburbs.” She brands Lou’s first footage as “Carjacking Crimewave,” selling the sensationalism and teaching her new protégé to frame each isolated incident as an ongoing case of domestic terrorism that will keep Los Angelenos glued to her network for updates. This is the basic function of television news, and the consumer demand for spectacle will always override the objections of morality guardians like station producer Frank Kruse (Mad Men’s Kevin Rahm). Frank sees an ethical responsibility to present unbiased facts to an audience trusted to make their own choices about what they’re seeing. But Frank is wrong: people don’t want to make decisions. We want to be told what to be afraid of. Lou and Nina understand this distinction and use it to their advantage.

And so while Nightcrawler’s audience may be horrified by Lou’s willingness to manipulate crime scenes to get better camera angles, engineer car accidents to wipe out his competition, and even withhold evidence from law enforcement officials in order to be on site for the next hot crime before it’s committed, we must remember that he is simply serving a consumer need with dispassionate precision and laser focus. These are the exact steps that corporate America encourages us to take when growing a small business. Lou memorizes LA’s police codes and the number of traffic lights along its major thoroughfares, making him faster and more efficient when chasing down leads. He scolds Rick for spilling gas and missing turns because every second and every cent count when calculating a company’s bottom line. Human weakness compromises that company’s efficacy, and Rick’s fear (“False Evidence Appearing Real”) of taking chances is a major roadblock for Lou’s goals. Rick is just too clumsy, too unsure of himself, and too hung on up Frank’s ethical standards to be of any long-term use to Video Production News, so he has to go.
Nina understands the dangers of that weakness, which is why she’s willing to compromise her dignity and enter into a sexual relationship with Lou when he presents her with an ultimatum. Lou has a need, an opportunity, and the leverage with which to make things happen, and so he does. There’s no consideration of Nina’s personal interest or effort to forge an emotional connection. By learning about “ratings books” and investigating Nina’s employment history, he has demonstrated his value as the most competent member of his field. Nina can make a deal, keep the asset, and stay employed, or she can lose it all because she was less willing to meet the (seemingly unreasonable) demands of the marketplace than a competitor might be. The real sickness and painful accuracy of Nightcrawler’s satire is the way this physical abuse gives way to genuine emotional intimacy: Gilroy shoots Nina and Lou’s final interaction in the edit bay like a love scene. She watches with wonder as Rick is murdered in the street, not realizing (or not caring) that Lou knew Rick was in danger and chose not to help. “I mean, it’s amazing,” she says, now fully corrupted by Lou’s cold, calculated performance.
The ultimate lesson of Nightcrawler is that there’s nothing we can do about any of this. We will continue to gawk at sensationalized cable news, and those willing to provide us with the footage will continue to thrive. The film digs that knife deeper by introducing Michael Hyatt as the earnest police detective investigating Lou and his methods. She knows he withheld evidence that might have put perps behind bars. She knows he engineered a shootout that left two officers dead and four critically wounded. But she also knows that he hasn’t broken any laws, that his alibi is almost impenetrable, and that he won’t be swayed by dramatic gestures or appeals to his humanity. We may want her to expose his sociopathic brutality and affirm our faith in the basic integrity of the system, but a civil servant is powerless in the face of American capitalism, a force that encourages us to give in to our worst instincts and celebrates enterprising visionaries and their uncompromising methods. “I would never ask you to do anything that I wouldn’t do myself,” Lou tells his new team. What that might be — and how far he’ll go before he gets there — are the scariest questions of all.


  1. Argggh, Rob. I feel like you've taken my "to watch" list and are writing a series of pieces of each of them. Well, thanks in advance for the great (?) piece I'll eventually read!

    1. Agreed, this and last week's Ex Machina article were fantastic! Also Jake Gyllenhaal is a god damn chameleon. I find myself always lining up for his movies regardless of what it might be about just because he's so good.

  2. I love that you include the line "sell yourself" in the beginning of your piece. In the handful of times I've rewatched this movie, that line has become the most important for me. Lou's shady tone, Ricks baffled response, and the implications of what will happen to him, elevate that scene for me. Lou is asking Rick to explain why he should hire him, but he also wants Rick to "sell himself" to the job. Once hired, Rick sells everything that he once had to Lou and the job. He sells his time, his freedom, his value, his morals, and even his life. In a way, Lou is asking everyone to sell themselves in one way or another, and Rick just happened to sell more than he had.

    Great piece Rob! This has become one of my favorite movies of the last few years, and I love whenever someone champions it.

  3. Nightcrawler is the shit. Everything about it is money.

  4. Ya the part where Nina went for him was creepily realistic.