Why am I watching this?
The concept of art as a form of morality is a vastly misunderstood concept in the age of reality-TV and instant-sharing. The line between art and entertainment acts more as a standard of nigh impossibility than a divider between two opposites, but that line exists and its presence in the sand is clearly drawn. The problem isn’t that this line is not black and white issue, the problem is that so few dare to tread it that we can hardly identify the shades of grey by name. Art has fallen from our dialogue and been replaced with political correctness and indulgence.
This is not all bad. So what if entertainment is fluff? So what if all we want is to sit and gather gratuitous stimuli until we bleed from our overwhelming boredom? I’m being unfairly harsh. Maybe if I phrased it differently it would be more comfortable: sometimes a film is just a film. But sometimes not.
NIGHTCRAWLER follows in the shoes of films like THE WOLF OF WALL STREET or FIGHT CLUB as being misunderstood as a movie that indulges that which it criticizes. Thanks partially to home camcorders and modernly cell phone cameras, the tendency to believe whatever we see in video as some form of true reflection of real events is stronger than ever. (The irony is that the biggest lies often contain the biggest truths. Think about the way stories, especially mythology or folklore, teach us about true things in life even though we know they are fabrications. If you can pick up on this irony yourself, you probably don’t need to read this review.) If somebody shot it, it probably happened. We are all aware, at least in the back of our minds, that this may not be the case exactly, maybe the images we see aren’t quite as real as we think they are, but we still get the impression that they are pretty real. This is our first mistake. The second, especially in the case of fictional filmmaking, is to assume that the creators of the video are endorsing whatever they are filming, or approving of it. The third mistake is to watch it ourselves.
Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a psychopath. From a psychological perspective, he fits the description, but from a narrative standpoint, this is the most important aspect of his character. He is completely cold, uncaring, divorced from human feelings, manipulative, exploitative, delusional, madly driven, obsessed with details, careless for his own well-being and that of others, isolated, sinister, rude yet charming whenever he needs to be and he thinks the opposite of each of these descriptions is true about him. Writer/Director Dan Gilroy never gives Lou even one moment of grace, one brief glimpse into some redeeming factor that would make Lou into a tragic hero. If he had, the movie would have failed so absolutely it would not only be an artistic disaster, but it would have raised some very suspicious questions about the moral compass Gilroy possesses. Whoever it was who first gave the green light on this script is far smarter than they got credit for.
If Lou Bloom was identifiable, if he had any quality of goodness about him, or even if he was just a very driven and damaged man but not a psychopath, then NIGHTCRAWLER would be an indulgence of every murderous, cold-blooded impulse humankind has ever known. This would be a movie to be condemned for its graphic depiction and more importantly its celebration of crime. Instead, NIGHTCRAWLER is a piercing satire that sets as its target the very people watching it, the audience.
Why am I watching this?
NIGHTCRAWLER is one of the more disturbing movies I’ve seen, and trust me when I say I’ve seen some pretty disturbing movies. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt quite as dirty or inhuman as I did while watching it, or if I’ve been so riveted to my seat while feeling a strong urge to save my dignity and turn the movie off at the same time, and then feeling guilty for feeling so riveted. At the same time, I knew that if I turned it off I would be contributing to the very problem the movie is trying to address, so that also compelled me to keep watching. On top of that, I knew how the movie was going to end, not because I saw the plot coming, but because I knew how the movie had to end. At a certain point (Guessing the ending of a movie is not an act of dark magic. If you know what to look for, anyone can figure out how a movie ends by watching the first ten minutes. I’m talking about being in tune with a movie’s intent. That takes remarkable skill on the part of the filmmaker to pull off), I realized what this movie was going to say and that there had only been one possible ending all along. I knew that if the movie ended any other way, it would make all the time I had been watching nothing more than a tease and I would be guilty of aiding and abetting, so to speak, and yet, I also knew that I had to watch to the end even though I knew what was coming because if I stopped, then I would be part of the problem.
Talk about an intense emotional/cognitive experience. It is an enormous accomplishment for a movie to make it past the second act without losing half of the audience along the way, let alone provide such a mosaic of conflicting feelings within the audience as well as on the screen. Shout outs must be given to the filmmakers for pulling this off. Consider this: the film isn’t particularly directed it the sense that there’s nothing fancy or attention-grabbing about Gilroy’s directing, contrasted with, for example, someone with a distinctive style like the Coen brothers or Scorsese, but that shows remarkable restraint. Gilroy keeps the story and his character front and center. He shoots mostly straight on and tight, like an amateur video nut would… see what he did there?
*For the rest of this review, major, major spoilers will follow. Yes, it’s been out on home video for a while, but there’s always someone… so, FINAL WARNING, IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM, MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW*
An Overview of the Plot of NIGHTCRAWLER
Lou begins the story as a loner looking for work. When we meet him he steals metal to sell to scrapyards. In the first scene, we witness him kill to protect himself. At least that’s what we tell ourselves, since Lou was just being friendly and trying to cooperate and that annoying security guard just wanted to lord his authority over everyone else, right? This is Gilroy’s first hook, managing to create some sort of Stockholm-Syndrome sense of likability for Lou. We’re stuck with him for two hours so we begin to see him as a victim. False. Lou is a deranged maniac. Don’t forget that as I work through the plot.
Lou then witnesses a car crash and meets a nightcrawler – a videographer who sells footage of gory accidents and crimes to news channels who pay for witnesses, essentially. Lou decides this is the occupation for him.
Lou hires Rick and starts training him. For the duration of the film, Rick provides the moral compass of the story. When Lou goes further and further down the dark rabbit hole of his obsession, Rick holds back, questioning, cautious.
Lou begins a forceful, abusive relationship with Nina, the news producer he sells exclusively to. Lou blackmails her and coerces her into acts she would not otherwise be willing to commit, but Nina is no innocent either and her bloodlust for bloody footage cannot be understated.
Eventually Lou makes his biggest break. He arrives at a shooting before the police do. He witnesses the murderers get away before filming some very disturbing footage of the crime scene.
In a key moment, Lou withholds his evidence of the suspects. By now you should know what’s coming next. Lou stages the arrest of the suspects so he can film that as well.
Rick backs Lou into a corner and demands a raise. Lou warns him but acquiesces to his request. They follow the suspects, film the shootout which involves the murder of innocent civilians and film the resulting car chase and crash.
Lou tells Rick that the suspect is dead, and to come get the angle. The suspect is not dead, and kills Rick. This is Lou’s revenge. He films it all.
Lou gets away with it and moves his company forward.
Lou Bloom, Psychopath
You would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that Hannibal Lector is the hero of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS or that Anton Chigurh’s philosophy lights the morality of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but neither are the main characters of their respective movies, although they are significant if not the main sources of conflict. Audiences need to identify with the protagonist in order to be swept up in a narrative, but not so with Lou Bloom. He is a fully functioning, pathological psychopath. And yet somehow, NIGHTCRAWLER forces us to see things through his perspective. Not only that, but it makes his perspective compelling. I’ll get to why in the next section, but for now let’s look over his profile.
I’ll never ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.
— Lou Bloom
By the time Lou delivers this line to his new employees, it means almost nothing. Lou will do anything to further his success, and we have seen that. He will kill, mercilessly. He will exploit and manipulate. He will lie, cheat and steal.
But this line also reveals what makes him so sinister. It is believable and it is comforting. Lou really means it. There’s nothing left for his employees to do that Lou hasn’t already done, but he is sincere. And, he sells it with confidence and calm. Lou sees himself as a mentor, as a friend even, to his employees. Someone to be trusted. No matter what orders he gives, and he warns that sometimes his employees may question or hesitate to obey what he says, he stakes his personal reputation behind what he wants.
This is Lou’s most terrifying personality trait. He is so cool and collected that he can fool anyone. Almost anyone, at least. The FBI agent who suspects Lou of murder doesn’t buy it, but that doesn’t matter. Everyone else does. However, they don’t believe him because he is ernest, they believe him because he reflects back their darkest secrets. Lou is a mirror unto each person he meets, showing them their dark side, and taking on their sins as his own. He is almost a Christ figure, willing to go to hell himself so that others can get what they want, which really means Lou can get what he wants. Almost, anyway. Lou will never sacrifice himself for someone else. Ever. I guess there’s one thing Lou won’t ask his employees to do.
Why am I watching this?
Gilroy never ever breaks this pattern. Lou is 100% all-in. And that is essential…
Why Lou Bloom Must Get Away
…Because Lou MUST get away with his crimes.
When THE WOLF OF WALL STREET was released, the movie was met with controversy over the portrayal of Jordan Belfort as some sort of inspirational figure. Jordan also gets away with his crimes, but this seemed to go over many people’s heads. Jordan Belfort, unlike Lou Bloom, is a real person who really did get off the hook.
Jordan Belfort, the real Jordan Belfort, is the author of a best selling memoir, an inspirational speaker and an iconic hero to many, many young men who attend his seminars.
What happened there?
As society, we let him off the hook. So why are we surprised when the movie does the exact same thing? The controversy over WOLF left me and many others scratching our heads. Yes, we got the sexism thing, yes we understood the portrayal of crime was gratuitous even if it was in pursuit of some grander purpose. But why the big fuss over the ending? Didn’t people get it?
Apparently not. And that’s okay. Not everyone should spend their time perusing pop-culture infused movies looking for deeper meanings. Could you imagine how dysfunctional society would be if we were all this nerdy?
Nonetheless, WOLF was a masterpiece of satire, one that never let the audience off the hook for letting the villain off the hook. One that held us to a standard, that showed us an unflattering picture of ourselves in order to make us realize that we are really just as guilty as the people we claim to condemn but secretly celebrate.
NIGHTCRAWLER has the benefit of being fictional and it has the benefit of having an non-relateable main character. Leonardo DiCaprio is just a lot more likeable than Jake Gyllenhaal and his portrayal was warmer and therefore harder to accept as satire. Gyllenhaal and Gilroy make it very clear that Lou is a character we should condemn.
So he must get away with it. Not only because narratively the film would be lying if it crafted a different ending, but because the film has something at its heart that demands this ending.
We are Lou Bloom.
Film As A Message
Why am I watching this?
I asked myself this several times over the duration of NIGHTCRAWLER. For a few hours after, I kept asking myself this. I mentioned earlier that it is one of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen and I hold steady in asserting that. I am still shaken.
NIGHTCRAWLER is a mirror. Most of the time, movies are just that, movies, entertainment. Little more. Sure, there’s usually a moral within them like, be nice to people, or love wins in the end, you know what I’m talking about. DUMB AND DUMBER is about accepting your differences, I think, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it. CASABLANCA is about the greater good. THE LORD OF THE RINGS is about doing what is necessary for good to win over evil. It’s also about friendship. The best movies usually combine thrilling entertainment with a good message. Think of PIXAR.
But some movies are not just entertainment. Some movies are philosophies unto themselves. Usually these are called art movies by film fans. More often they’re called pretentious. That’s unfortunate because it’s a very cultural response, but it’s true. Again, it’s not such a bad thing. Entertainment is fine.
But some movies, very few movies, don’t so much have a message at their centre as they are the message. Think of a movie as a thesis statement. Say you want to tell people that “Love conquers all.” You begin writing your film from that perspective. Every character, every plot point, every detail you can think of is in service of this thesis. You structure the story around it, you develop your characters’ backstories to focus on this single element, you even plant subtle cues into the environment of the film that points to what you want to say.
You end up with the full depth of what filmmaking as a medium is capable of. It’s astounding stuff, the work of genius. Few can pull it off. Fewer try to.
So what does NIGHTCRAWLER have to say?
Why are we watching this?
Whether it is a movie, HBO, reality TV, YouTube or even just the news, most of the time we never stop to question why we are watching what we are watching. I mean really question it. Some of the content out there is really messed up. Doesn’t it say something that we are drawn to it? Isn’t that a comment on ourselves somehow?
Do we enjoy watching gory violence because it’s entertaining or because it indulges our fantasies? What about porn? Does a movie like TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION count as a kind of porn?
Is James Bond a self-indulgent fantasy we can pretend to live through so we can paint ourselves up as murderous heroes and sex gods instead of dealing with the problems of masculinity we have in our culture?
If we are willing to live our lives through our favourite YouTubers… does that say more about ourselves than it does the people willing to live through a camera?
For that matter, what about the news we watch? We are so irresistibly drawn to violent images. Real violence at that.
On TV it looks so real.
— Lou Bloom
Lou says this in regards to a backdrop of LA. Curious then, that he never really looks at the subjects he films, he only ever looks through the LCD screen on his camera. This is not a coincidence.
Gilroy’s movie is meant to comment upon the very nature of indulgence and the way that video enables us in our gluttonous pursuit of gratuity. Nina’s thirst for viewer-grabbing footage pushes her into ethical messes she will never get out of, but she doesn’t give this a second thought. She will do whatever it takes to get her hands on food for the masses no matter what moral ground she jumps over.
Nobody ever stops to ask, why are they watching?
So neither do we. I finished the movie. I had to.
Looking Through The Eyes of Delusion
We see the entire movie through Lou’s eyes, an act that forces us to see things from his perspective. This has a very weird effect. I actually had to ask myself if I was some sort of sociopathic freak after watching this because I was so caught up in seeing things through a distorted viewpoint. Maybe that’s just me letting my empathy get carried away, but surely others felt this way too.
Lou’s eyes are not the only ones we wear. We also see through Nina’s mind. We understand he aspirations and her drive to get her hands on whatever footage will further her career. And we see things from Rick’s point of view, wondering if what we’re doing is in any way morally acceptable. Rick gets his comfort in money, and we get ours in narrative payback. Everything will work out in the end. Rick will receive compensation for his compromise and we will get our sense of justice back.
Except that’s not what happens. Rick’s willingness to let go of his standards leads to his death, and likewise, the movie does not give us what we wanted either. We want to see Lou punished but instead he gets a pat on the back. Once again, I hate to beat this drum, but it is important: this is the only way the movie can end. Gilroy cannot let us off the hook or his entire point would be lost. He would lose all the credibility he had established and be left as nothing more than a jester dodging the boos we hurl at him.
By forcing our perspective, Gilroy is able to have the ending he needs. Imagine if this movie had an outsider’s point of view. We would be at a safe distance, able to criticize Lou and then reward ourselves for condemning such obviously reprehensible actions. Instead, we feel uneasy. We cannot confront Lou because we are Lou. Our criticisms are aimed at ourselves, and instead of an obvious choice, we must chose between commenting upon Lou’s decisions and condemning ourselves in the process or revealing ourselves to be hypocrites who like to play judge.
NIGHTCRAWLER is a very uncomfortable film because of this, and that’s the way it should be. Not all movies are meant to inspire us to write poetry. Some are meant to shake us to our very core and hold us to our own standard. We say we condemn violence but we celebrate it in the news by watching every night. We say we don’t approve of fraud but we make thieves into celebrities. We say we hate terrorism but we go to war without just cause. Pick any example of our narcissistically driven judgements and NIGHTCRAWLER asks us to turn the finger of blame back on ourselves.
By forcing our perspective into one of complete delusion, Gilroy penetrates the lies we tell ourselves so we can sleep at night and wakes us up to reality. Lou’s delusion becomes our clarity.
Cynicism, and Why It Matters
Sometimes I just want to give up. I get called weird names, not nasty names, but still weird names for writing about movies like this. My friends don’t take me seriously when I start on about what a movie really means or why we should watch some French existential black and white movie about death instead of ordering pizza and watching MARLEY AND ME. And I don’t blame them. I actually think it’s kind of funny.
But then, sometimes, the opposite happens, and we have a deep conversation and connect over worries that we thought we were alone in having. Things like that, and I remember, that it is worth it.
Cynicism is hard to avoid. I have spoken out against growing callous and cold before because I think there’s too much wonder and love in the world for us to be this harsh, but I can’t help but end up feeling very much like throwing hammers at people and railing against everything sometimes.
I think cynicism is necessary. It prevents us from becoming too ignorant. Cynicism holds us to a standard, it allows us to take some distance from our own heads and consider things from someone else’s point of view. It allows us, above all else, to escape our own narcissism.
In many ways, NIGHTCRAWLER is not a very hopeful film. It’s story is one of bad-guy-gets-away, good-guy-dies. It’s main character is beyond saving. It’s secondary character is also beyond saving, and the only character who might have a chance ends up eating pavement. How can this movie have anything good to say about reality?
Because it is cynical about reality. Because it takes a shot at us and tries to tell us that we don’t have to be this way. We are Lou Bloom… but we don’t have to be. We can be different, we can be better.
I love satire. But sometimes it ends up its own ass. The best satire tends to get overlooked by about half the audience, but that’s not hopeless, it’s hopeful. That leaves the other half with the task of talking about it. It leaves room for interpretation, and it leaves room for growth. Maybe the first half actually has a good point. Maybe the second half is on to something. The point is, it’s up to us now.
Cynicism hurts because it shuts down our emotions. In other words, it hurts by a numbing process, and you don’t realize how much you’ve been growing callous until it’s too late. But it’s not too late, for cynicism is also self-correcting, and able to counter itself. It is a wake up call, not a sedative.
So I’m glad NIGHTCRAWLER is as brutal and unrelenting as it is. I’m glad it’s an obvious dark satire. I’m glad its message isn’t obscured by a good-looking lead actor (not to say Gyllenhaal isn’t good looking but he did lose a lot of weight for this role and Lou Bloom is not very attractive) or overblown nudity. I’m glad it isn’t directed into oblivion with pandering artsy camera angles and attractive lens filters.
Cynicism has its times, and this is one of them.
Where Do We Go From Here?
So here we are, at the end of the journey for Lou Bloom, but at the start for us. We have the opportunity that Lou doesn’t, which is, to watch and discuss NIGHTCRAWLER. I wonder what Lou would say about this movie, or is that way too meta?
Gilroy got a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, but he never stood a chance at winning, and that’s fine. Sometimes the Oscars get it right in nominating films that deserve attention. Believe me when I say that filmmakers have standards of filmmaking. We know what we’re talking about. As I mentioned earlier, whoever gave this script a go knew far more than most of us ever will about the art and purpose of film. Really, think about it, how did this movie get made? It shouldn’t be a hit at all.
Which says a lot, I think, for us as a species. That so many people are interested in deeply profound movies that really, really challenge us. (The movie grossed almost five times its budget of 8M.) It’s encouraging to see so many people taking part of a discussion about a movie like this. That we’re willing to stop for a second and ask ourselves why exactly we are still watching.
I think that says we’re doing something right.