Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy)

Posted: November 4, 2014 in Uncategorized

Walking in to see “Nightcrawler”, one can be forgiven for thinking the film is going to be a run-of-the-mill indictment of the news media.  We’ve seen films before about how the once gleaming fourth estate has been reduced to reporting crap in the pursuit of ratings.  Hell, even the idea of violent footage bought by a station to boost ratings despite the illegal and immoral way in which the video was shot has been fodder for films.  You may not remember “15 Minutes”, a Robert DeNiro bomb about serial killers who film their crimes and sell the footage to the news, but that film’s premise is sort of a cousin to “Nightcrawler”.  In “Nightcrawler” we don’t have a serial killer, but we do have Louis Bloom, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.

In a creepy, bug-eyed performance that is Gyllenhaal’s best and is deserving of at the very least an Oscar nomination, we watch as Bloom starts out as a petty thief, stealing copper wire and chain link fences from construction sites to sell to other outfits.  Bloom is not like your common petty thief, however.  He speaks in the language of banality taken from self-help books, how to succeed in business seminars, and guides to writing a resume.  His inflection is that a man leading a seminar or pitching a pyramid scheme.  His dialogue doesn’t sound like a human’s, but rather the memorization of an introductory business courses’ text book.  He has the stilted language of an extreme Aspie, and in the film he specifically says that he has little formal education but instead spends hours online reading up on things because information is everywhere if you know where to look.

Driving home one night, he happens upon a scene of two EMTs pulling a woman from a flaming car wreck.  Some freelance video photographers, lead by Joe (Bill Paxton), show up to film it, and Bloom decides that this profession is more to his liking than stealing bicycles.  After selling some gory footage of the victim of a carjacking to the lowest rated new station in the city, it’s late night producer (Rene Russo) tells him that if he gets more footage that plays into the station’s niche (crime stories about urban violence encroaching on white suburbia), the station will continue to buy and use the footage.

Bloom soon goes from using a small personal camcorder he gets at a pawn shop and a chintzy police scanner to keep up on where stories are happening, to making enough money to buy a fast sports car, better equipment, and take on an employee (Riz Ahmed) to help with navigation and shooting B-roll.  As competition increases with other freelancers, Bloom starts to cross ethical lines: sneaking into victims homes without their permission, moving evidence (or bodies) to stage better shots, etc.  Everything builds to a point where Bloom reaches the location of a shooting before the cops do, and decides to go on in and film the bloody scene.

Here’s the thing: this movie is not all that concerned with the news media.  Yes, it covers the basic material of how the news plays up crime to scare middle class and affluent white people, and the if-it-bleeds-it-lead mentality that some local news stations have, especially if they are dead last in their market.  This is all stuff that’s been done to death before, even if this film does a good job of rehashing the material without banging you over the head with what is already obvious to everyone.  So no, the main issue with this movie isn’t the news media.  Oddly enough, the film really has a problem with free-market, entrepreneurial capitalism.

I’m sure you know the basic ideas that many hard core proponents of free-market capitalism espouse.  It’s the whole American Dream thing about how if you work hard, have a plan, and also a little luck and gumption, you can make it no matter what your background.  A lot of these people are also hostile to regulations (or any laws that inhibit one’s ability to grow and make a profit), and some particularly Ayn Rand-ian persons don’t believe that empathy or consideration for one’s fellow man should get in the way of achieving their goals and making their profit.  “Nightcrawler” is an indictment of these sensibilities, and it makes its case by taking these beliefs and extending them to their most extreme scenario to reveal how insanely awful the whole idea is.

We have Bloom.  He’s a criminal, uneducated (though not unintelligent), and poor enough to live in a studio apartment with a single houseplant, though has enough money for a laptop, a flat screen, and DirectTV.  In an early scene, he describes how he grew up in a time where education was teaching kids too much self-esteem but that he was grateful to break free of that and realize that nothing comes to a person in life unless he goes out and earns it.  Rather that learn things through liberal academia, he goes online and reads up on topics of interest to him until he knows them forward and backward.  After all, knowledge is free so why pay some institution when you can learn it on your own yourself (an extreme Libertarian argument against public education in general).  When he finds out something he is interested in, he develops a business plan, and through skill and self-determination works his way up from a lowly guy with a camcorder, to making a decent living off of his own business, expanding and adding new employees, and going from a man begging for jobs to the boss.  Great.  It’s the modern free-market fairy tale of upward mobility.

The catch is, however, that our main character is not just an enterprising young man, but a creepy psychopath who is on the verge of snapping, has little-to-no people skills, is completely amoral and more than a bit misanthropic, and doesn’t think ethics or even the law should get in the way of him doing his job.  There are studies showing that while 1% of the general population are psychopaths (people who have zero empathy), 4% of CEOs are.  “Nightcrawler” certainly makes a case for why a psychopath can do well in a free-market system.  When laws and ethics don’t hold you back, you can get a make a better product or provide a better service (video of freshly murdered corpses), sell that for top dollar, and advance your career.  “If you want to win the lottery, you need to make enough money to buy the ticket”.  Bloom is constantly rattling off sayings and phrases that sound like they came from a Forbes Magazine blog post or a Libertarian politician’s talking points for a debate.

There’s one particularly chilling scene where Bloom takes Russo’s producer out to dinner, implying that he’ll no longer sell her juicy footage if she won’t, and then proceeding to blackmail her into a sexual relationship via a Sun Tzu-worthy business negotiation where he points out that she works the late night shift at a low-rated news station and if she loses the job she will also lose her health insurance, and she’ll likely lose her job is Bloom decides to stop selling her his footage.  Gyllenhaal plays the scene not as a man skeevily blackmailing a woman for sex, but rather one businessman using his leverage to gain favorable terms to a contract.  There’s little malice in his voice, or pride, or anything really.  He simply states the facts, states what he wants, and gives her the choice to accept or reject his terms, knowing the consequences.  It’s a masterful scene in writing and acting.

The film was written and directed by Dan Gilroy, who has never directed a film before but has a number of screenplays to his credit, including the underrated and forgotten early 90s time travel thriller “Freejack”.  In “Nightcrawler” he has created a main character who is at times as chilling as “Taxi Driver”’s Travis Bickle (and Gilroy sometimes shoots him from similar angles).  The message is the film is both blatantly obvious (it’s hard to ignore how Bloom’s dialogue is almost entirely comprised of the language you’d read in a corporate brochure, especially when he’s explaining to a dying man why he was an untrustworthy employee who had to go), yet will likely go over the heads of the people who would be offended by the message (to my knowledge, Fox News hasn’t done any stories about the film being Liberal propaganda against “job creators”, or anything like that).  Gilroy also did something that is nearly impossible these days: he made me excited during a car chase.  He gets points just for that.  L.A. looks great when photographed at night (remember “Drive”?), and Gilroy takes full advantage of that by making the city look both pretty and menacing, often times in the same frame, without needing to resort to weird angles or overt image manipulation.  While Gyllenhaal’s performance will take up most of the credit for this film’s artistic success, and that credit will be deserved, we can’t forge that Gilroy has written a strong, almost 1970s-feeling film and created one bugnuts crazy lead character who is captivating to watch, and deserves the comparison’s to Bickle.

The film, in a way, does give the free-market credit.  Bloom transforms from a man whose oily, slicked hair is creepy to a man in a business suit whose oily, slicked hair works to complete his look of professional business man and entrepreneur.  The question the film asks is: Is it a good thing that we live in a world where the attributes of a person like Bloom are heralded, praised, encouraged, and rewarded.  If this is what we are supposed to strive to be, if this man is the American Dream made flesh, then isn’t our whole damn idea of success a diseased entity that needs to be heavily reexamined?   It’s only a mild exaggeration to say that Bloom is the man people like Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, and Rand Paul want us all to be.  That’s a scary thought, and may explain why the movie opened on Halloween. A-

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