Nightcrawler: A Local Business Success Story?

by Matthew Cabe

Jake Gyllenhaal plays an unscrupulous news cameraman in the thriller Nightcrawler

On the morning of 11 September 2001, the 17-year-old me was sitting on his bed, leaning forward in an attempt to enter the television screen in his bedroom not unlike James Woods in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. He was supposed to be getting ready for school. The local news was supposed to be background noise like it was every other morning. But the teenage me was glued to a broadcast of one of the World Trade Center towers as smoke billowed from an open wound left by a commercial airplane. Then, on live TV, another airplane exploded into the second tower.

Imagine, for a moment though, that the 9/11 attacks occurred this year instead of in 2001. Where would Americans be? Chances are the vast majority wouldn’t watch the events unfold on their local news networks. They’d be hunched over their phones, scrolling Twitter for hashtagged updates of cell phone footage taken by normal people who just happened to be unfortunately in the wrong place at the right time. They’d be retweeting images, sharing their disbelief on Facebook, frantically texting loved ones. They’d be smoking to deal with the panic, thankful that they’d charged their vaporizers the night before.

But now imagine an internet-savvy 30-something who’s adaptable, fiercely competitive, DIY-minded, and can’t find a job (this shouldn’t be a stretch). That’s Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) in first-time director Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. Well, that’s partly Lou Bloom because he’s also creepy, amoral, desperate, calculating, and sociopathic. He’s also weirdly readable, which makes sympathy for his victims nearly impossible because, well, they knew better. 

Unemployable Lou falls into nightcrawling—a paparazzi-type job except the subjects are car accidents, suburban home invasions, and gang-related violence caught on tape and sold to local news outlets—after watching seasoned nightcrawler, Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), film two police officers rescue a badly injured woman from a wrecked vehicle on the side of a Los Angeles freeway. The next day, Lou steals an expensive bicycle from the Venice Beach Boardwalk, pawns it to get the equipment he needs (a cheap video camera and police scanner), and hires homeless Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his unpaid intern.

Lou’s rise in the nigthcrawling profession plays out like a rags-to-Fortune 500 success story as he goes beyond the limits of other nightcrawlers (and the limits of what’s ethical and legal) to attain the captivating footage he needs for a hard sell. He encourages (and threatens) Rick with emotionless, cliched business jargon, and develops a professional relationship with Nina (Rene Russo), the director of the lowest-rated news channel in the city.

Not long after Lou and Nina launch their business partnership, Lou begins to outperform his competition, including a pissed-off Joe. Lou has a knack for film grammar, as Nina points out, and a flair for the dramatic that could easily make him an adept documentary filmmaker. So why waste his talent in the, to put it lightly, fledgling local news market?

For starters, Nina and her news channel are as desperate as Lou to make money. He hones in on them like a lion would an injured gazelle; they’re the weakest link and he’s got the goods that could save all their jobs, so he attacks their (mostly Nina’s) vulnerability. And he stands to make very good money from his manipulative prowess, as evidenced by his pristine Dodge Challenger that pops up without warning midway through the film.

But Nigthcrawler isn’t The Wolf of Wall Street. Gilroy isn’t interested in filming the excesses of American swindlers so much as he’s interested in the motivation and psychosis that makes them wildly successful, if not enviable. And Lou isn’t interested in those excesses either. His focus is on being the best at what he does, no matter who gets maimed along the way.                  

At first glance, Nightcrawler feels outdated. Indicting the media for the “If it bleeds, it leads” mantra seems pointless and laughable. Network, among a slew of other films, already brought forth those accusations back in 1976 (and did so more adeptly, by the way). But a closer look reveals a timeliness to Nightcrawler that has little to do with the media or the sins of corporate America.

Because what the film addresses is the culture’s desensitization to, not just violence, but everything (Ebola was so last month!), and the possibly useless attempts of older generations to search for any sense of relevance in a world dominated by Millennials—the most powerful, reflexive and dismissive generation the world has yet to produce.

When Lou films the carnage he finds (or creates), he looks as intensely desperate as those generations yearning to reach the forefront of anywhere that has already passed them by, and as unaffected by the violence and death as the Millennials whose greatest skill lies in clicking, liking and swiping away every story without need for context. 

In a post-9/11 world, it’s fair to argue the possibility that had 9/11 occurred just two months ago, it would receive as much attention as the latest celebrity scandal, medical scare, or world crisis. Which isn’t much. Shelf-life no longer exists because the shelf collapsed under the weight of endless availability. People just aren’t willing to give anything the amount of time needed for processing, which is a result of the technology available to construct that unwillingness. Even this review is irrelevant; Nightcrawler was released into American theaters nearly a month ago. Who even cares anymore? I mean, shit, the new Hunger Games came out today.