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.
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.