‘Nightcrawler’: A Neo-Noir Masterpiece about Neoliberalism

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a sociopath in Dan Gilroy’s ‘Nightcrawler’

“My motto is if you want to win the lottery you’ve got to make money to buy a ticket.” ~ ‘Nightcrawler’

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) just wants to make some money. In the opening scene of Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014), he trespasses onto private property to cut a chain-link fence and is approached by a police officer. He assaults the officer, snatches his watch, and heads to a pawn shop to make a quick profit. There is a negotiation, and Lou admits that he is looking for a job. When he is denied, he offers to contribute free labor, known in the United States as an “internship,” but is shown out of the door.

We are led to believe that this is a routine night for Lou, an unemployed thief trying to survive in contemporary America. Since Nightcrawler is a film, however, something unexpected must happen to shake things up.

On this same night, a sullen Lou stumbles upon a car accident, strikes up a conversation with a cameraman (Bill Paxton) on the scene, and learns that he can make money by selling video footage to local news stations. This is Lou’s “aha!” moment. The rest of the film chronicles his rise in Los Angeles’ highly competitive world of freelance crime journalism.

Nightcrawler is a scathing critique of capitalism that shows how the effects of a struggling economy trickle down to the individual. When people like Lou need money to survive and are unable to find jobs, they are left to their own devices, and often make depraved decisions in pursuit of financial success.

In Lou’s case, he interferes with crime scenes in order to get the best possible footage that he can sell to Nina (Rene Russo), a veteran news director who similarly sells her soul to stay afloat. Nina has been in the business for decades, but she has never experienced professional stability, always moving from station to station throughout her career. This explains why she takes Lou under her wing. She is smart enough to know what kind of footage brings the ratings, and cynical enough not to care about how that footage has been captured.

Nina’s instincts prove to be correct, and Lou learns that he has a knack for this kind of thing. He hires Rick (Riz Ahmed), a young homeless man, to help him with his work. Together, the two experience the trials and tribulations of starting a small business.

As the film progresses, we come to realize that Lou is a sociopath who lacks a moral conscience, whereas Rick is a well-intended individual who cannot catch a break. They both need money, however, and when the economy fails to fulfill its basic promise of employment, moral boundaries become blurred. Everyone’s one rent payment away from turning to the dark side.

The film’s indictment of capitalism is broad, but the world of local television news is specific, and Gilroy offers provocative commentary on the creation and consumption of news in 21st century America. We’ve seen films like this before, most notably Network (1976) and To Die For (1995), but Nightcrawler is a powerful reminder that the situation has only gotten worse.

The purpose of local television news has always been to provide viewers with information about their community. In order to succeed, local news stations must report unique stories that cannot be gleaned from nationally syndicated news outlets. This typically involves stories about local crime, and as Nightcrawler illustrates, gruesome murders in affluent neighborhoods garner the highest ratings.

Many of us already know this, but Nightcrawler takes it a step further by showing us how local news operates when crime rates have dropped. The dearth of violence means there will be a frantic fight to be the first on the scene when a crime does occur; furthermore, in Lou’s case, there will also be fabrication in order to make the scene more dramatic. This is what separates Nightcrawler from the aforementioned thematic predecessors, and what makes the film an urgent exposé of today’s local news landscape.

I wonder, if Nightcrawler premiered today, how would people react? At a time when journalists are demonized by the Trump administration and other fascist regimes across the globe, and the truth is dismissed as “fake news,” would audiences be able to stomach Gilory’s satire? The film complicates the “fake news” debate by showing what happens to journalistic purity when there’s a for-profit motive.

Gilroy certainly challenges the credibility of local television news, but he doesn’t let the audience off the hook. After all, Lou and Nina are merely giving the viewers what they want.

The film confronts our obsession with true crime stories. In 2011, more Americans followed the Casey Anthony trial than the Arab Spring, and many found pleasure in being the voyeur. These true crime stories aren’t exactly newsworthy, but they excite and enrage the viewer, which in turn benefits the professional news organizations that continue to profit from them.

Since the premiere of Nightcrawler, our interest in true crime has only intensified. In response, WAER, a radio station located on the Syracuse University campus, recently posed this question:

“The rise in popularity of the true crime genre has given us some memorable and moving content focusing on bizarre crime cases ripped straight from the headlines…What is driving this obsession? Why do we love to consume stories about the dark side of human behavior?”

In addition to all the true crime podcasts that have been launched since the unprecedented success of Serial, there have been a plethora of true crime documentary series distributed by streaming services like Netflix, including the water cooler conversation starter Tiger King (2019) and Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer (2020), which generated the type of controversy that compelled more people to tune in to the carnage.

For whatever reason, people are drawn to psychopathological behavior, whether by perpetrating acts of destruction themselves, or by passively observing them take place from a distance. Psychologists and other mental health professionals have attempted to ascertain the cause of our affliction for centuries, at least since the publication of Richard Von Krafft-Ebing’s seminal text Psychopathia Sexualis (1886). We still don’t have a definitive answer.

Nightcrawler subtly engages with these debates without offering any easy conclusions. Perhaps we’re so captivated because we get it. We instinctively comprehend why so many people go mad, even as we convince ourselves that we would never descend into such chaos.

Like Drive (2011), another neo-noir masterpiece set in Los Angeles, Nightcrawler tackles disturbing themes with a darkly funny undertone. You can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all, and it’s strangely satisfying to watch Gyllenhaal sink his teeth into such perversion. Similar to Ryan Gosling in Drive, Gyllenhaal plays a dangerous sociopath with a wry charm, a man who smiles at you seconds before he snaps your neck.

I can’t claim to settle centuries of complex debate, but there’s also this to consider: Our neoliberal system promotes an every-man-for-himself social code. When so many people struggle to survive, we shouldn’t be surprised when all hell breaks loose.

The article has been modified from a previous version published in PopMatters.

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