In 'Nightcrawler', Jake Gyllenhaal's Character Has Lost His Moral Compass
How far will an unemployed man go?
"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."
-- Dan Gilroy
"What do you have?" Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) has just walked into a local TV news station, a station that happens to be in LA but might exist in any number of US cities. The hour is late, the rhythms are tense. Trying to impress Nina (Rene Russo), the director, Lou makes a predictably ludicrous assertion. He's got, he says, "something I'm sure everyone will be excited about." Nina's a veteran of the business newbie Lou's trying to crack, her experience making her at once exquisitely vulnerable and utterly cynical, the embodiment of "everyone."
In Nightcrawler, Nina serves as an especially articulate version of "everybody." When Lou offers her close-up video footage of a crime victim bleeding on a gurney, she's instantly intrigued and -- importantly -- willing to pay for it. The footage is typical, handheld, badly lit, disturbing, Nina's enthusiasm is the payoff: Lou's awkward first time makes him your guide into the world of tabloid reporting, as he learns what sort of gear he needs, what sort of assistance and payment, and what sorts of pictures sell. He learns from sources you'd anticipate (TV and the internet) and also by observing men (they're all men here) at a few scenes, careening their vans to curbs, steadying their cameras as they run to car crashes, soft-footed on sneakers, their camera-mounted lights piercing the darkness even as they reveal precious little.
Lou's limited vision is yours, of course, and so you might feel, at first, aligned with his ambition or even his enthusiasm. When he's encouraged by Nina, whose eyes go wide when she sees his crude imagery on her monitor, he asks for clarification, what sorts of stories she wants. She goes on to over-explain, serving here as the very model of prostitution in the business. She's looking, she says, for images of “urban crime creeping into the suburbs.” Lou parses further: she means black criminals invading white neighborhoods? She means to frighten her viewers? Maybe not in so many words… but yes.
If neither Lou nor Nina understands the moral stakes in such pursuits, the film provides someone who might. With the introduction of Lou's new (and much abused) assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), NIghtcrawlers makes especially clear its focus on metaphor. Rick is eager to succeed, willing to listen to Lou's googled advice for success (it results from clear communication between colleagues, compliance with systems, and commitment to goals), and also, at least for a time, tolerant of both emotional cruelty and lack of actual payment.
As Rick begins to doubt his mentor and employer, Lou looks increasingly haunted, the 30 pounds Gyllenhall lost for the role leaving his face gaunt and eyes enormous, and Nina increasingly defeated, her investment in Lou's product less convincing as narrative than compelling as institutional critique. Just so, the film turns gradually more lurid, with colors garish and shadows odious, twisty city streets looming in headlights, sirens and chopper sounds ever present as background noise. As Lou begins rearranging crime scenes to tell better stories -- moving photos on a refrigerator or a body at a car crash -- you realize the film is doing the same, contriving plot points and cues to evoke your own visceral responses.
That's not to say Lou's calculations don’t have a logic, or that the film doesn’t take you were you might expect to go. It is to say that the fiction emulates the sensationalism, the fiction, of tabloids. It's a logic of capitalism, as filmmaker Dan Gilroy imagines, a capitalism premised on fear. Certainly, this will be familiar to anyone who's looked at TMZ or watched cable news: from ebola and the midterm elections to gun control and immigration, multiple campaigns, commercial and political, scare people to sell product, whether it's a cell phone or a candidate.
This focus is embodied by Lou, who becomes scarier and scarier. It's not that he exults in what he does, it's more that he doesn't much care. Save for the rising dollar amounts he charges for his footage, Lou apparently has little sense of their value or their costs. If Nina represents the industry that profits from horror and tragedy, the industry willing to sell anything for cash money (or the promise of cash money), Lou's pathology is both more mundane and more scandalous. Showing no reaction to the carnage he records, he makes art that passes for emotional reality. And this might be one way to understand how tabloids do their work. Ingeniously, repeatedly, formulaically, they conjure unbelievable truths. Like you, Lou is a spectator, his gaze framed in close-up to reflect yours. It's an image as discomforting as any bloody body or car wreck, as Lou looks through and at you, and looks for you too.