The Movie That Reminds Me of the Time I Betrayed Who I Am — “Nightcrawler”

Nightcrawler lead

by Gabriel Valdez

There’s nothing wrong with this review. It describes the film, it praises what works, it delves into its meaning, and it wraps up with a larger message about how Nightcrawler can inform a viewer’s perspective.

But…to be completely honest, I think it lacks a certain artistry I seek to incorporate in my reviews. Here’s the problem with Nightcrawler for me – it hits way too close to home. I’m deeply proud of my reviews, from turning my own experiences inside out for Gravity and Fury to waxing loquacious about why American Hustle and The Monuments Men are testaments to art itself.

If there’s a quality I feel makes me unique as a critic, however, it’s empathy – not that other critics don’t have it, but other critics might not consider it the single most crucial factor of the job. When I face a truly great film about sociopathy, it can get under my skin. I have a habit of briefly adopting little nuances from main characters, of walking out of the theater like a film’s protagonist would walk out, of absorbing a character’s perspective, because it’s one of the biggest ways to truly empathize with a film.

Films about sociopathy I hold at arm’s length as a defense. Nightcrawler isn’t exactly like There Will Be Blood, an art horror centered on a sociopath. There was nothing admirable about Daniel Plainview, nothing which won you over. That’s not the case with Nightcrawler‘s Lou Bloom. As strange and devoid of moral fiber as he is, there’s something hauntingly childlike in him. You’ll want to care for him, listen to him, despite all your better judgments. It’s a testament to Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance that I hold him at such a distance from myself.

I’ve worked jobs where I’ve had to dissociate myself from my own moral core, particularly last year. It was hell, and I changed as a person while I was in that job. I was surrounded by practiced sociopaths, whose entire livelihood was based on manipulating – their customers, their employees, each other, their families, themselves. Every morning, we met and trained in a new, precise tactic of manipulation.

It doesn’t matter how good a person you are if every day you’re trained to be otherwise; I allowed myself to begin operating in increasingly morally gray areas. I’d never cross a certain line, but that line moved from one day to the next. I quickly hit a self-destructive wall of near-constant anger about it. Thankfully, you become pretty bad at manipulating people when you’re angry all the time. The job dried up; I left. And yet it showed me a part of myself I believed I was beyond giving into. It illustrated a potential in me that I had thought I was above.

It was deeply frightening, and because Nightcrawler so specifically echoes that experience for me, I have no empathy for it. In a movie like Fury, I can understand those pressures to be a man through hate, and to teach others to be men through hate. I can empathize with the struggle of viewing the world that way because it’s a struggle that I feel I’ve faced down in myself. But Nightcrawler, that lack of empathy, that morally gray existence, that unfeeling quality of viewing others as nothing more than functions toward success or pleasure – that’s my nightmare. That’s always been what’s scared me the most.

Nightcrawler is not terrifying because of anything inside the film. It’s terrifying because of something inside me. Maybe it’s in all of us and I was just unlucky enough to glimpse it. Maybe everyone glimpses it and just doesn’t talk about it. I don’t know, I just know that I briefly, briefly recognized a capacity that’s always been there, that can always be trained, that I don’t value or like. I care so much because my adult life has been a reaction toward refuting that little bit of me, and here it was in Jake Gyllenhaal’s face, staring me down.

So my review? It gets the job done, it’s good analysis, but it lacks the one thing I try to put into everything I write and everything I do – empathy. Because I can not have empathy for this. I can never have empathy for this. I have only the sheer fright that’s driven me to be who I am instead, and that Nietzsche quote stuck in my head: “For when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

The Review

You know those rags-to-riches movies where the hero starts off from nothing and works his way to the top? He puts in more effort and longer hours than everyone else just because he wants success so badly. Now what if that hero weren’t a hero? What if we followed a sociopath instead, but he still puts in more effort and longer hours and all that dedication we’re meant to cheer ahead?

That’s the quandary we’re given in Nightcrawler. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a young man who bounces from gig to gig (mostly petty thievery) until he gets it in his head to become a freelance cameraman. He roves the L.A. streets at night to get the best shots of car crashes and shootings and sell the footage to morning news programs. He’s also a self-help addict, quoting mantras for success and even designing some choice personal ones.

His lack of moral codes help him get ahead quickly, and he develops an exclusive sales relationship with a struggling news producer, Nina (Rene Russo). He ingratiates himself with her crew and hires a homeless man to be his assistant. Why a struggling producer? Why a homeless man? Because he can manipulate and control them more easily.

Nightcrawler Gyllenhaal

It’s to Gyllenhaal’s credit that he gives us a character so good at being evil (the Iago effect, so to speak) that we can’t help but marvel at him. As writer-director Dan Gilroy has said of Lou as a character, “he understands people the way a lion understands a gazelle.” Lou maneuvers those around him into small compromises of their ethics, until he has them backed into a corner where it’s either his way or their job, or their safety, or their life.

It’s astonishing that Gilroy and Gyllenhaal can create such a misanthropic character, yet present him in a way that elicits a hint of jealousy in his audience. A part of us admires his efficacy at getting what he wants, and understands when others concede more and more to him. Appealing to that part of us is the true horror of Nightcrawler, because we understand how easy it is for anyone to negotiate his or her moral codes little by little until they’ve given too much.

Gyllenhaal is vastly overlooked as one of our best actors working today, and Lou Bloom may just be the single best screen villain since Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. While Gyllenhaal eats up the role, Gilroy provides a movie in which there is no wasted motion or excess dialogue.

Nightcrawler increasingly suggests that in an economy where you can no longer rely on employer loyalty and a solid retirement package, where you bounce from gig to gig and the next quarter is more important than long-term stability, it’s the unfeeling sociopaths who do best, the ones who prioritize material success over helping the human being next to him.

Nightcrawler Gyllenhaal Russo

It’s also a salient look into the news industry. 24-hour news networks (and not just one; they’re all guilty of it) regularly cut information and context from their stories, preferring instead to write and edit their own narratives. (This is one reason why I tend to support independent news over national networks.) Even when police are reporting new information, networks will hold off on it when it undermines a narrative that might earn higher ratings.

There’s a simultaneously dramatic and comic scene (and yes, for all its cynicism, Nightcrawler is deeply, darkly funny) in which news anchors riff over fresh footage of a home shooting. Their speculations run rampant as they sway wildly between stating the obvious – “that appears to be a shotgun” as we pan up to see a shotgun – and the baseless – neighbors are told to be worried whether “they’ll be next.” Even as they narrate the footage, Nina reminds her anchors over earpieces to repeat words like “terror,” “fear,” and “violent.” In many ways, Lou’s manipulation of those around him is no different from the newsroom’s manipulation of its viewers.

In essence, this is a movie about a character who doesn’t develop, but instead bends the world around himself. His successes are celebrated and the clear facts that he’s dangerous, a threat, and a liar are consciously overlooked and excused by everyone around him. His victims even begin to adopt his worldviews, repeat the mantras he’s crafted for himself, and increasingly justify his immoral actions as being part of “the right idea.”

Nightcrawler is dangerous filmmaking centered around two of the best performances of the year by Gyllenhaal and Russo.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Nightcrawler have more than one woman in it?

Yes, in additon to Russo’s Nina, it also stars Michael Hyatt as Detective Fronteiri, Ann Cusack as producer Linda, Holly Hannula as a news anchor, and Carolyn Gilroy as a production assistant. Russo and Hyatt get a lot of screen time.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. They discuss news production and confront each other over legal issues.

Nightcrawler is an excellent example of a film with limited perspective (we never leave Lou Bloom’s side) that nonetheless incorporates great female characters interacting with each other as professionals. Russo has a heated scene opposite Hyatt and an insanely good scene with Cusack. Russo also orders her newsroom about, women and men included.

Considering the small size of its core cast, Nightcrawler is one of the best films I’ve seen for involving women despite following a male character exclusively. There are issues of victimization, but Bloom’s pretty equal opportunity about ruining lives. How he delineates what he wants from different people falls along sexual lines, but this has more to do with social definitions of success and mastery over others. This is where Nightcrawler is at its most bitingly satirical.

David Fincher, who has nothing to do with Nightcrawler but directed this year’s Gone Girl, is fond of saying he likes to make movies that scar. Nightcrawler is a tragedy in comic form that doesn’t just scar, it damages. It sits on a tonal knife-edge, and from an acting perspective, only Gyllenhaal could have delivered this performance.

It’s brilliant. I’m not sure I’ll ever want to visit it again.

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