I am still not entirely clear how Nightcrawler managed to get seen, let alone made… Yes, it had a relatively slim $8.5 Million budget and yes, it appears to have received some money from a Californian tax credit scheme but how did a viciously left-wing film about a profoundly unsympathetic character manage to pick its way through the gears of a Hollywood machine that has grown disinterested in anything other than Summer money and Winter respectability? This film neither provides multinational corporations with a means of advertising to children nor aging sex symbols a chance to relaunch their careers by playing someone ugly, disabled, or mad.
I can imagine this film being made by Fritz Lang in the 1940s or Martin Scorsese in the 1970s but from a first time writer/director in the same year that the Academy nominated American Sniper for Best Picture? No. Not now. Never.
Nightcrawler is a film that is completely out of step with the cowardice, mendacity and incompetence of contemporary Hollywood. It is the cinematic equivalent of a black panther spotted diving into an English hedgerow or an enormous footprint discovered in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. It is a cryptid, evidence of a cinematic Golden Age that exists nowhere other than our desire for something bigger, better and different to what we actually have.
Described as a “neo-noir crime thriller”, Nightcrawler is best understood as a film that critiques American cultural values in a way that echoes the visual panache of Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Drive albeit with none of that film’s faith in the retributive powers of heteronormative masculinity.
The film opens with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis ‘Lou’ Bloom breaking into a yard and stealing a load of copper wiring. When confronted by the security guard, he initially tries to talk his way out of the situation only to decide that he likes the look of the man’s watch. The next thing we know, Bloom is throwing himself at the hapless security guard and hauling the stolen materials away to a building site where he begins by trying to negotiate the price and ends by requesting a job. Unapologetically hypocritical, the foreman explains that he does not hire thieves… but he is willing to receive stolen goods.
This early scene is foundational for both the character and the film’s setting: It establishes Bloom not only as a man who is unconstrained by conventional morality but also as someone who has successfully internalised the principles and rhetorics of neoliberalism. Bloom talks like a contestant on The Apprentice; business school jargon delivered with an up-beat innocence that struggles to contain a mess of ugly ideas and the even uglier ambition that feeds them. By agreeing to buy the stolen goods but not to hire the man who stole them, the site foreman is expressing a form of hypocrisy that will be familiar to us all: We recognise that we are subjects of the market and that our need to survive makes us complicit in its inhuman processes… but at least we still have our principles!
Before long, Bloom is witness to an accident and happens to overhear a freelance cameraman negotiating with a local news channel. Impressed by the money the man was able to make simply by having a camera in the right place and at the right time, Bloom decides upon his new career path and trades a stolen bike for the camera and police scanner that will allow him to become what the industry calls a ‘stringer’.
These initial scenes are beautifully handled as Bloom is positioned as the plucky outsider who wants nothing more than a steady job. This embodiment of the Capitalist work ethic is forced to interact with rude security guards, hypocritical foremen and overly-aggressive cameramen in a way that humanises Bloom and makes him seem like a suitable receptacle for our all-too-human sympathies. Sure, he beat up that rent-a-cop and took a load of stuff but he wanted to work! He’s just like us… a plucky outsider who just needs a fair shake and the chance at retribution that comes from being an upstanding citizen who pays their taxes and doesn’t take hand-outs. Hell… this guy is nothing short of a god-damned hero! Fuck that cameraman for being shitty with him… why shouldn’t he be allowed to work?
This vision of Bloom as the plucky outsider also comes across the first time he manages to make a sale to Rene Russo’s Nina Romina, the late-night director of a local news channel. Nina is a veteran journalist whose world-weary cynicism stands in stark contrast to the naïve optimism that seems to radiate from Gyllenhaal’s Bloom: He is studiously polite but she swears continuously. He is delighted to have the chance to participate in a mission to keep the public informed but she is working this job because it is all she knows. Director Dan Gillroy allows the conversation between Bloom and Nina to drag on and on until we are almost as embarrassed as Nina. In moments like these, our tendency to give Bloom the benefit of the doubt is more than rewarded… there’s something almost kittenish about the wide-eyed wonder with which he observes the world.
Having established a professional relationship with Nina, Bloom decides to hire someone to help navigate and park the car. He hires Rick (Riz Ahmad), a homeless guy who is just the right side of burned out and desperate for a job that would allow him to get his life back on track. In the first of many moves dissolving any good will the audience might have had for the character, Bloom offers Rick the position of an unpaid intern until Rick eventually manages to talk him into paying him something so far below the minimum wage that it’s not even funny. Bloom is completely unapologetic about his ruthlessness and explains to Rick that he should be grateful that he is being allowed in on the ground-floor of a new venture and that this new venture would almost certainly allow him to get noticed and besides… many of his previous employees have been hired full time.
Bloom lies with as much ease as he breathes: When selling a stolen bike, he mentions that he used it to win the tour of Mexico and how could his previous employees have been hired when Rick is the only person he has ever worked with? Rick buys into Bloom’s lies because he is desperate but also because Bloom’s lies have been endemic in the culture since the crisis of 2008. There are plenty of jobs for people willing to work for nothing and capitalism is all about the freedom to negotiate except when nobody is willing to pay a living wage. Bloom speaks these lies in a way that makes it look like he’s just repeating whatever it is that he happened to learn on a business course but his cynical attitude towards the rhetorics of Capitalism emerges as the film unfolds.
At one point, Bloom arrives at a hideous car accident just before the police and paramedics. Bloom sticks a camera into the face of a survivor while the man is on the phone to the emergency services, he then begins repositioning corpses in order to produce better images. This shows how completely disinterested he is in gathering news and he later points out that the local news station devotes almost no time to genuine news and vast amounts of time to sensationalist images of accidents and crimes that perpetuate racist and classist narratives about African Americans coming into nice white suburbs in order to rob and murder their inhabitants. It is not that Bloom misunderstands the nature of his job, far from it… he is obeying the real logic of the market and the market for images that fuel racial hatred is the biggest in local news. Bloom is well aware that Capitalism makes hypocrites of us all and his language reveals a familiarity with the lies people tell themselves about their own complicity in dehumanising forces, but he himself feels neither remorse nor guilt and he will not apologise for taking the logic of the marketplace all the way to its logical conclusion.
The fact that Bloom has progressed beyond the sanitised business school bullshit of The Apprentice and connected to neoliberalism red in tooth and claw is beautifully captured in the scene where his usual negotiations with Nina turn into something much darker: Bloom has secured some sensational footage and he knows that Nina wants it… in fact, he knows that Nina needs it because her job is on the line and she is already working for the smallest network in local news. She is desperate for what he has to sell but Bloom wants more than money… he wants Nina but while the negotiations take a left turn at ‘professional’ and continue on into ‘horrific’ and ‘degrading’, Bloom’s rhetoric remains polite and professional… when Nina finally realises what he’s asking for, he simply smiles and repeats her incredulous question in a more even tone of voice. No business school bullshit can hide a creature like Bloom for long… he is the real deal, an embodiment of Capitalist energies with no respect for friendship, love, or life.
One night, Bloom stumbles upon a robbery in process and manages to get footage of the robbers escaping as well as the bodies of their victims. This footage makes him a small fortune but it also attracts the attention of the local police who are incapable of moving beyond Bloom’s business school politeness. Sensing an opportunity, Bloom decides to follow the robbers until they arrive at a photogenic spot at which point he calls the cops and films the resulting gun-battle that claims a number of innocent lives. Horrified by his boss’s business ethics, Rick seizes the opportunity to renegotiate his terms of employment and extract a sizeable bonus but while Bloom is hoisted on the very same moral petard he used to squeeze Rick out of a living wage, he reacts to Rick’s ‘betrayal’ by allowing him to get shot, thereby allowing Bloom to be free of both an expensive business partner and a potential police informant.
Nightcrawler is filled with the neon-drenched streets that made Drive look beautiful and yet many of the film’s images come across as monstrous and malformed. Far from being a failure on the part of the film’s cinematographer – Robert Elswit, who also worked with Paul Thomas Anderson on both There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice – these shots suggest that while you can try to make something ugly look beautiful, it will still be fucking ugly. Nightcrawler may use the vernacular of the neo-noir but it does so in a way that tolerates neither nostalgia nor mythology… these are not stylish rain-slicked streets but a battlefield, streaked with blood and surrounded by ugly buildings filled with people who are miserable and afraid. Nightcrawler openly mocks the beauty of films like Drive and dwells on the vicious cynicism that lies at the heart of cinematic style as well as our relationship with it. The characters in Nightcrawler may claim to be capturing the truth with their cameras but all they are doing is feeding the market and perpetuating an ideology that corrodes, alienates and kills. We claim to want the truth but what we really want is a comforting ideology dressed up to look like the truth.
Nightcrawler is not just a vicious critique of local news, it also extends the critique to its own audience; people drawn to the film by promises of sex, violence and beautifully composed images that pander to their ideological preferences. As the multiple shots of TV screens, monitors and shots-within-shots seem to ask: What is the difference between people seeking out sensationalist news and people seeking out a film about sensationalist news? Capitalism makes hypocrites of us all.