By: Matthew Frank
Six years ago, Nightcrawler arrived in theaters to overwhelmingly positive critical acclaim, despite its mediocre box office returns. Although the film received practically no awards or awards buzz, it was lauded as a dark, brooding masterpiece from writer-director Dan Gilroy. Jake Gyllenhall plays Lou Bloom, a man who comes off as an odd mix between a how-to-succeed-in-business seminar instructor and a serial killer. His thirst for “success” leads him to adopt the career of roaming the streets of Los Angeles each night looking for accidents or crimes so that he can film them and sell the footage to local news stations.
Although Gyllenhall’s character could have been portrayed as being displaced from normal society, Gilroy instead paints a city populated by ravenous leeches like Bloom. All of them show a lack of regard for impacts outside of their own success and fulfillment. Through this image of a morality-deprived Los Angeles, Girloy touches on themes ranging from the populace’s craving for violence, a lack of morality in media, and capitalism, causing a complete erosion of morality. While pertinent in 2014, these themes are still incredibly relevant today because the press regularly prioritizes sensational news instead of objective news, and the trenchant structures of capitalist suffocation are still present.
Much of the film revolves around Bloom’s relationship with local news and the media sphere in general, which gives Gilroy ample room to explore the institution’s flaws. Specifically, Gilroy portrays the media industry as seeking out images of violence and crime that pander to white suburban anxiety as a means of drawing in more viewers. While there are many other items to report on in a city as big as Los Angeles, Bloom’s videos and images of a wealthy, suburban family getting murdered get all the attention. So, by the end of the movie, when Rene Russo’s character Nina rejects the facts of murder to maintain an intriguing narrative that abides by these anxieties, her decision, unfortunately, makes too much sense. However, Lou Bloom’s immediate recognition of the opportunity to film murder presents this moral transgression on the most visible level.
For starters, Gyllenhall is aware that violence is news, but “white-class” violence gets special attention. As Bill Paxton’s character is emblematic of, there are “nightcrawlers” who make their living off of giving people the most graphic depictions of violence and bloodshed in society. Bloom learns this through observation, and takes it one step further by getting footage of a murder that isn’t “expected”. It isn’t shocking when there’s a car crash or violence in areas where the media makes it seem like a hub for it. However, the novelty of white-class, suburban murder makes his recordings incredibly “juicy”. This craving for the “juiciest” story, however, detracts from things that impact large swaths of people in the communities the media is supposedly covering.
Gilroy goes more in-depth with his criticism of the media’s penchant for violence when the awkward sexual tension between Rene Russo’s character and Gyllenhall’s character arises. When Bloom makes straightforward advances towards her and threatens his product’s removal, Nina, a direct representation of the entire media industry, compulsively obliges despite not wanting to. Although it may seem like a strange ancillary plot thread, it fully exemplifies how desperate the media industry is for violence and for salacious imagery and how a character like Bloom doesn’t understand the meaning of true connection or relationship.
This desire for the stories and the images that grab viewers’ attention the most or, to put it another way, the desire to succeed as a cog in the media machine further feeds into capitalism’s overarching theme as an eroder of morality and connection. Lou Bloom is a man solely fueled by economic success. When Bloom happens upon the juicy white-class murder, he could have turned over footage of the killers to the proper authorities. Instead, he sits on the information to garner a greater reward for himself. The issue with this is not in the decision itself; people make selfish decisions all the time. The problem is that moral things to do in this situation aren't even considered. Gilroy uses this as a benchmark for how capitalism literally robs people of their decency. He shows how a man susceptible to the will of capitalist institutions like the media will inevitably see morality as nothing more than a weakness.
Bloom’s behavior outside of his job reinforces this characterization. He primarily speaks in entrepreneurship credos, he doesn’t take failure as an option, and he feels a perpetual need to expand and move upwards. Though, on an even deeper level, Gilroy makes Bloom into a character that can’t foster a connection with others. His relationship with Russ’s character is clearly transactional, but his relationship with Riz Ahmed’s character Rick actually has some legitimacy. Rick is hired as Bloom’s assistant, and even though it’s subtle, as the film progresses, he connects with Bloom more than anyone else does in the film. Even so, this connection is ultimately rendered meaningless to Bloom, as he knowingly tricks Rick into getting murdered by the criminals they’re filming and then films his death. This demonstrates how capitalism makes people and institutions exploit people and then disregard their humanity, all in the name of economic success.
When Bloom shows the footage to Nina, she is outwardly shocked, but deep down, she clearly understands the impulses that caused it to happen. This shows the media’s devolution to being a righteous institution, but it also shows how Bloom is not a one-off — in a broken system, Bloom’s actions fit far too comfortably. His immorality is visible, but disturbingly understandable.
As evidenced by this film, Dan Gilroy is a great writer/director, and he happens to come from a family with another one. His older brother Tony Gilroy wrote and directed the film Michael Clayton, which I found very similar to Nightcrawler. The main character, Michael Clayton, is a man who is solely driven by capitalist ideals and is willing to sacrifice his morality in service to them. However, by the end of the film, Clayton undergoes an alteration, and he is able to escape the demanding forces he was subject to. I bring this up because they’re the same kind of movie, yet they have completely different endings. Bloom remains undeterred in his pursuit of economic success, while Clayton is able to and, more importantly, wants to maneuver his way out of this pursuit. So why the discrepancy, and why am I writing about Nightcrawler instead of Michael Clayton?
Well, Michael Clayton came out thirteen years ago, and Nightcrawler came out six years ago. As time has progressed, the prospects of escaping the chokehold of modern-day capitalism have become more and more fleeting, and that has continued in the following six years since Nightcrawler arrived in theaters. Because of this, Nightcrawler is still an extremely relevant, timely, and essential film today.