Nightcrawler (2014) is a dark stylistic thriller about a man earning a living as a nightcrawler: an individual who independently films horrible accidents and crimes and sells the footage to news outlets. The film’s main character, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a grossly unlikable anti-hero with superior intellect, a penchant for violence, an obsessive self-driven personality, and sociopathic tendencies. He embodies characteristics of classic film nutters from Norman Bates to Travis Bickle and Patrick Bateman, while emerging as a character unique in his own enlightened form of madness. Lou primarily does business with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the manager at a failing television news station, whose apathy towards journalistic integrity and good taste meshes well with Lou’s powerfully-motivated aptitude for capturing grotesque footage.
Television news is an increasingly diminishing outlet for the public, as internet news and online media consistently tug viewers away from the television. It’s realistic to consider television news has to keep upping the ante of their programming in order to retain an audience. Nightcrawler ultimately casts light on a seedy component of television news’ content acquisition, and questions the ethical behaviors and responsibilities of television journalism. However, while nightcrawling is a real business and stations do acquire content through independent videographers as a regular part of business, the particular angle taken by the film and the level to which its story unfolds is exaggerated by Dan Gilroy, the film’s writer and director.
The Playlist by IndieWire interviewer James Rocchi said the character of Lou Bloom feels like “ if you shoved the Great Gatsby under a rock and just fed him self-help books and other forms of bullshit for 50 years, and then saw what crawled out.” To that end, Gilroy said he finds the unemployment rates of young people - not just in America, but globally - to be astounding. He explored a study of someone desperate for work to the point they’re willing to do anything.
“I started to think of the anti-hero,” Gilroy told Playlist. “I think you have to be careful and aware that you don’t want it to be a reductive study of psycho-babble. You are looking for something more. You want the audience to connect in a way that goes beyond a just sort of a pathological study. The idea of a character who had an implied back story of abuse and abandonments; I pictured him alone as a child, and all he had was his computer and he was going on his computer a lot surfing —this is the back story. And in his desperate loneliness and probably raging insanity, the precepts of capitalism became a religion to him. If you only had [one] direction to climb, which is up, then to have a goal would give sanity. I imagine he started to scour the internet for self-help maxims and aphorisms, and Forbes 500 corporate-HR manual speak. I believe he’s an uber-capitalist, and capitalism is a religion, it’s a religion that gives him sanity and which ultimately drives him insane and pushes him over the edge. It's a mindless pursuit of a goal that can never be achieved. That ultimately leaves only a hunger, which goes back to the coyote —this perpetual hunger that can never be satiated.”
Capitalism is predicated on people’s desire to continually expand their possessions, their wealth, and their stature. It’s a never-ending hunger to go beyond what one already has. That’s the realistic culture of American society, and the theme upon which Gilroy examined to its extremes.
“It’s the perpetual spirit of poverty. I don’t know another system other than capitalism, maybe some mixed socialism thing. I wouldn’t want to hazard what the better system was, but I think we’re entering into this period of hyper free-market capitalism that’s becoming very much like the jungle, in which it is acceptable that the weak perish at the hands of the strong, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And I feel like the world as I see it —and this is a personal film on a lot of levels— has been reduced to transactions, and that Lou thrives in that world because that’s the only thing that has any relevance to him. And we approach it as a success story of a guy who is looking for work at the beginning and is the owner of a successful business at the end, and the reason I approach it that way is because I didn’t want at the end for the audience at to go, 'oh, the problem is this psychopath!' I wanted the audience to go 'maybe the problem is the world that created and rewards this character.' Maybe it’s a larger question.”
Nightcrawler is, then, Gilroy holding the negatives of the American dream up to the light. Humans are a product of their environment, and are shaped by their experiences. Capitalist culture facilitates plenty of normal, healthy business behavior - but also encourages the creation and mentality of people like Lou.
The second message of the film deals with the behaviors of news entities, and their abetment of fear-mongering and message manipulation. The way Nina continually pushes Lou for juicier, more disgusting footage. The way she constantly shouts in the earpieces of her on-camera reporters, coaching them to repeat details about the crimes that instill a sense of dread and fear into the viewer. And her belief that urban crime seeping into the suburbs is the pinnacle of domestic threat.
“It’s perpetuating the myth and the horror that minorities are dangerous,” continues Gilroy. “And if you live in a suburban area regardless of your race, you are in danger from these desperate unwashed people who are going to creep over your hedge and somehow harm you and steal your car. That’s the true tragedy of this narrative that’s being presented by the news, when people then go to sleep and wake up in the morning and get in their car, and they encounter 'a minority,' or someone who would fall into the category of that narrative of the 'urban person.' You don’t approach them in an open, friendly and harmonious way. You look at them as instantly threatening and dangerous.”
The ethics of journalism, particularly in Gilroy’s vision, are constantly humming along the edges of acceptability. No scene in the film speaks more to this point than Lou’s nightcrawling evolving to the point where he’s moving bodies and staging accident scenes and facilitating entire crimes to create more terrifying footage - and Nina’s excitement parallels his when it’s offered for sale. As his business enterprise and bank account grow, his ethics decline. Nina’s do too, as she’s shelling out more cash and airing more controversial footage in attempts to gain viewership. They both want to grow, to reach beyond their current status, whatever the means.
Gilroy argues the qualities that make Lou successful are not that far-fetched, and are present in plenty of successful American entrepreneurs.
“I believe —and when I was writing this film, I firmly believed— that if you came back in 10 years, Lou would be running a multi-million dollar, multi-national corporation,” Gilroy says. “Lou would do better in comparison between himself and a corporate head who broke the company apart and put 40,000 people out of work and then went off to build an 8,000-foot square home and wound up on the cover of BusinessWeek Magazine…These attributes are celebrated. I believe it's only the stupid sociopaths that are caught, and I believe most sociopaths are insanely brilliant in deciphering what human cues need to be manipulated, and the sociopaths know people like lions know gazelles; they know every weakness, they know every smell, they know every element that can be manipulated ... and Lou understands people and knows how to do that.”