Violence as culture [nightcrawler]
Nightcrawler has more to say about where and what we are now than any film I’ve seen in a theater this year. Which is, I think, the reason that the film sustains a feeling of intense dread and discomfort in the viewer for its entire duration. I hesitate to call the film great since as a filmgoing experience it’s not exactly what one would describe as “enjoyable” or “fun” in the traditional sense — I can only give it the highest recommendation and urge any film fan to see it.
Jake Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, an ambitious young man who makes a living stealing and selling various goods until he sees a small freelance crew filming car crash footage for cable TV news. Denied a job with the outfit but fascinated by the process, Lou buys a camera and goes into business for himself. He sits in his car all night listening to a police scanner, driving to promising crime scenes to try to capture what the cable news channels want — the most gruesome footage possible. Lou is inexperienced, but exceedingly driven and goal-oriented, and, lacking any sort of moral or ethical scruples, he quickly finds that he’s good at this.
Nightcrawler’s subject is violence. There is violence in itself, the way violence is fetishized and aestheticized in the media, violence in action movies, the commingling of sex with violence in movies, and capitalism as violence. Violence pervades Nightcrawler, as it pervades our culture, and the film allows us to see how these different forms of violence are connected.
The world of Nightcrawler is one in which success lies around every corner, always in reach if you can only figure out how to stretch far enough. Early in the film, Lou sees a news story about a missing lottery ticket worth $266,000,000. Check your pockets, the newscasters say — you may be the winner and not even know it.
But, as we know, and as Lou knows, it’s not that easy. Everyone can make it big, but you have to work for it. Lou, who speaks like somebody continuously reciting a cover letter, is full of mantras. “I believe that good things come to those who work their asses off;” “If you want to win the lottery, you have to make enough money to buy a ticket;” “People who get to the top of the mountain didn’t just fall there.” The unit of measure here is the individual; everything a person needs to succeed — the knowledge of what you want, the desire to achieve it, and the drive to work hard enough to do so — is within him- or herself. This is an echo of the apparent virtues of free market capitalism, and the political justification for the American economic system. Everyone, no matter his or her station in life, has the same chance to succeed; it just depends on how hard you work.
However, disaster is also around every corner. This is where cable news comes in. The news programs in Nightcrawler want the most sensational coverage they can get — the bloodier the better. Nina (Rene Russo), the producer Lou sells his footage to, says cable news should be like “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.” And they don’t care about inner city crime; Lou is told instead to focus on crime committed by minorities against affluent white people. While the level of gore and violence shown on TV in Nightcrawler is far more graphic than anything you could actually see on TV, the idea is the same. The point is to scare viewers, to terrify them into continuing to watch the news. And the sensationalism is supposed to be exaggerated, which is why the flaccid proclamations about journalistic integrity from one character (Kevin Rahm) are the most distracting and annoying part of the film.
The film is also run through with an acute anxiety about the economy that feels remarkably true to life. At the beginning of the film, we hear a story on the radio about the housing market starting to recover after the recession. The characters are almost all either on the brink of financial or career ruin, just recovering from it, or in the throes of it. Nina, who has only spent two years at each of her previous producing jobs, is coming up on two years at her current job, and the ratings aren’t so good; Rick (Riz Ahmed), whom Lou hires as an assistant, had been homeless for some time, has no permanent address, virtually no employment history, and is willing to work for $30 per night; and Lou, when the film begins, is desperately seeking employment, lives in a small apartment by himself, and has to steal to get by.
Who and what Lou is, and how that develops throughout the film, is central to what drives Nightcrawler. Lou is gaunt, with jutting cheekbones and chin, and he has sunken, hooded eyes that seem a little too big for his face. He is at once handsome and repellent, with a charm and naïve earnestness that has a disturbing artificiality about it, as if he’s been programmed to be amicable. His features are almost always placid, even when he’s angry, and he’s a little too quick to smile, which can be comic or menacing, depending on the situation. What appears initially to be innocence and ambition morphs into a depraved and unscrupulous hunger for success. Gyllenhaal’s performance is incredible; at first he seems to be acting a little too much, but then you come to realize that this character is also always acting. It’s as if he imagines himself always on a job interview, or going over his resume, or leading a business meeting. His speech is a constant stream of business-speak, and his life is just an evolving business plan.
Essentially, Lou Bloom is a specter — a past-less, emotionless being with no morals, a superhuman determination, and an almost magical ability to get what he wants. He represents a physical embodiment of an amoral capitalistic drive for success. He doesn’t make sense as a character — we know nothing about him, we don’t understand his motivations, he has no real human feelings or ethics (at one point a terrified Rick even tells Bloom he isn’t human) — but as the personification of this force we can begin to understand him. The only thing that drives him is the desire to be financially successful, to become this idea of a businessman. It consumes him beyond all other concerns. He talks exclusively about his business, and the only reason he does anything — form personal relationships, put himself in life threatening situations, commit serious crimes — is to advance his business. And as the film goes on, he becomes more and more powerful; by the end, he is controlling the events of his life like some sort of god.
The masterstroke of Nightcrawler is to make us identify with this force, to implicate us also in the violence it depicts. At the beginning of the film we’re sympathetic to Lou — we may even like him. He’s a guy a lot like me and you — honest and hardworking but down on his luck. When he begins to find success in his new line of work, we root for him. When he hears about a carjacking gone wrong in a good neighborhood, we hope that he’s the first one there, that he gets the goriest footage. And when he sells some footage to Nina, we want him to get a good price. The film pulls us into his world, makes us feel the thrill of his work and relish in the violence of it, even if we don’t realize it. The camera, like Lou, is relentless. The close-ups are a little too close, and they linger a little longer than you want them to. It stares at the violence that unfolds without looking away, forcing you to confront it. What Nightcrawler does is place these violent images, this craving for violence, in context, to make us feel the hunger that Lou feels.
Sexuality is also tied up in all this. Lou develops an attraction to Nina, who is much older than him. There’s nothing about their relationship that would indicate sexual chemistry, making Lou’s interest in her exceedingly creepy. And when Nina understandably has no interest in anything other than a professional relationship with this psychopath, Lou negotiates their romance as part of a business transaction: Nina gets his footage and the bump in ratings that comes with it, and Lou gets an improved business relationship with the news station and a sexual relationship with Nina.
At some point, though, their relationship transforms. When Lou brings in the juiciest bit of footage to hit cable news, just when Nina needed it, something is sparked inside her. This incredibly violent footage makes her finally attracted to Lou. And in a scene near the end of the film, when Lou delivers the finest and bloodiest video Nina could have imagined, the two stand face to face in the editing room, the image of a bloodied man at the moment of death on a screen behind them, and there is an electric sexual tension between them.
There’s an indelible connection between violence and sex in movies, particularly action movies. Nearly every action film also includes a romance plot, or at least subplot, and reinforces this relationship between violent and sexual urges — think Karen’s attraction to Henry in Goodfellas, Scarlett Johansson in The Avengers movies, Zoe Saldana in Colombiana, the proclivity of action movie trailers to intercut scenes of violence and destruction with images of sex, or, to go back a ways, in Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927) the mingling of the audience’s fear of a suspected killer with the killer’s mutual attraction with a young woman, whom we’re sure will be his next victim. Where in other films violence and sex are presented together as a natural pair — perhaps because of their supposed correlation as expressions of our two most primal urges — Nightcrawler resituates the sex-violence continuum in a less appealing context; the audience is forced to confront, rather than tacitly comply with, the connection between them.
As Nightcrawler goes on Lou exerts an increasingly powerful hold over the events of the film. It starts simply enough; to make a better shot, he moves some family pictures on a fridge next to a bullet hole in the fridge. Later, he arrives at a car crash before the police and alters the crime scene to make his footage more dramatic. This continues until Lou’s control begins to extend to the film itself. What are in themselves disturbing or vicious actions are presented as simply part of this dramatic narrative of success playing out in Lou’s mind. The music plays an important role here. Where at the beginning of the film the cheerfulness of some of the music seems a ridiculous and out of place juxtaposition with the images, by the end the triumphant music comes to match perfectly the narrative of success that Lou is experiencing.
Lou’s final act of brilliance involves a very complex maneuver — in order to not give too much away, I won’t say exactly what — in which he manages to put all the pieces in place for a gruesome crime to take place and be there to film it while it happens. The scenes that ensue are the most thrilling in the film. But what’s striking is that, as we watch Lou film a shootout and car chase, it becomes clear that Lou is directing his own action movie, the action movie that we’re watching. He wrote the scenario, set up several camera angles, and directs some of the action, capturing it all on film. In this way, Lou becomes the proxy director of the film not only that he’s making, but of the one we’re watching. You can’t sit back and enjoy the action as you would in another action movie, because we’re conscious of the creation of it, of the acts of violence that it causes. We feel the thrill of the creation, not simply the observation, of these events, and so we are implicated as participants in them.
Nightcrawler confronts much of what is ugly about contemporary American culture — the violence, the violence of the media, the violence of sex in the media, the violence of a heedless capitalistic drive. It attempts to show how these things are connected, and wraps it all in an unlikely but fitting package: an action movie. Nightcrawler makes you uncomfortable, and it should. Any movie that offers such biting and accurate criticism of current American culture, that turns your face towards it and doesn’t let you look away, should leave you with a burning disgust in the pit of your stomach.
//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.