Nothing busts canons quite like living in interesting times. In our ongoing Inflection Point series, we look back at the films that have taken on new relevance due to our ongoing cultural and political upheaval. Some beloved, some undiscovered, these titles deserve newfound consideration as film criticism evolves to meet the moment.
In January, sports fans across the country were crushed to hear of the tragic deaths of NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, and several others in a tragic helicopter crash. To make matters worse, these deaths were made public before the Los Angeles police department had an opportunity to notify the Bryants’ next-of-kin. This inspired Los Angeles County Undersheriff Tim Murakami to turn to social media with a heartfelt plea for the entertainment company. “I understand getting the scoop,” Murakami wrote, “but please allow us time to make personal notifications to their loved ones.”
Ever wonder what kind of a person would want to profit off the worst day of someone’s life? Then that’s probably something that you and writer-director Dan Gilroy have in common.
In 2014, Gilroy released “Nightcrawler,” a bleak foray into the world of crime journalism. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal in an award-winning role as videographer Louis Bloom, “Nightcrawler” shows what happens when the wrong person finds purpose in capitalizing on the tragedies of others. Together, Gilroy and Gyllenhaal created a film that showed – and continues to show – the American dream through the darkest possible looking glass. In this world, crafting a personal narrative around opportunity and perseverance often ignores the people crushed under the gears of your ambition along the way.
In Hollywood, performers are often defined early as character actors or leading men. Occasionally, a particularly talented actor will come onto the scene and blur those lines entirely. Gyllenhaal’s gift – one he shares with actors like Robert Pattinson – is his understanding that marquee good looks and unnerving screen presence work best in tandem. Many of Gyllenhaal’s characters are unsettling because they are conventionally attractive; they understand on an instinctual level how to leverage their appeal to manipulate the people around them. Louis Bloom cannot launch a news career without someone first inviting him into the right room. His all-American looks are as responsible for opening that door as his nascent skill as a cameraman.
And in Louis Bloom, Gyllenhaal found perhaps the best outlet for his instincts as a performer. Bloom is the quintessential Hollywood sociopath, one constructed from an all-you-can-eat buffet of sensationalized psychological disorders. He ignores social cues, exhibits an alarming lack of empathy, and disassociates his actions with the damage they have on the people around him. He thinks nothing of moving bodies at a crime scene to improve his footage or blackmailing others into giving in to his demands. One of his first onscreen interactions shows him assaulting a security guard; one of his last has him maneuvering his employee into a barrage of bullets.
But Bloom is also a fast learner. It would be easy to discard everything that Bloom does as the actions of a sociopath, but much of what we see from him during “Nightcrawler” is learned behavior. In their first scene together, Rene Russo’s Nina Romina provides Bloom with the rules he needs to grow in this industry. His victims must be white and upper-class; the suspects must be black or Hispanic. Romina needs footage that threatens the security of her wealthy suburban viewers. While she will not directly come out and tell Bloom that violent footage is the best footage, her non-answers offer him the only framework he needs to operate as a freelancer.
It’s possible that, with different guidance, Bloom might have developed into a different kind of professional. His is an ever-evolving worldview, and if he had been presented with a more rigorous approach to journalism, he might have even turned into a world-class videographer. But this would hardly have represented any developing sense of morality on his part. Bloom will always be a man devoid of conscience in the traditional sense, and equally important as his natural talent is his recognition that this mode of journalism pays better than others. “Nightcrawler” makes it clear that this form of reporting comes with the lowest barrier to entry. Would other types of journalism allow Bloom to walk into a news studio with no experience under his belt and still be treated as a professional?
Then again, when it comes to the news station, Gilroy keeps the focus on the finances. In the years since “Nightcrawler” was released, audiences have seen corporations like the Sinclair Broadcast Group bring an increasing number of news stations under their belt. This, combined with the known fact that local news tends to overemphasize minority crime, ensures that we never confuse Gilroy’s antipathy towards the commodification of news with actual journalism. Just this path month – as news networks around the country struggle to find stories in the wake of an unprecedented cultural shutdown – major news networks have taken to giving time to overt misinformation. “Nightcrawler” is less interested in pointing fingers at so-called “fake news” as it is exploring how viewership numbers often encroach on editorial guidelines.
This is an important distinction. As much as “Nightcrawler” operates within the framework of the nightly new industry, Gilroy’s film is not just a commentary on the state of reporting in the country. Instead, “Nightcrawler” uses television news as a stand-in for an entire culture of entrepreneurs. Much of Bloom’s behavior is recognizable to those familiar with the startup community, organizations built on the promise of never-ending financial growth and wisdom. Bloom’s constant stream of entrepreneurial jargon – a jumble of business school platitudes and embellished personal experiences that form his credo – echoes the LinkedIn posts of countless self-described innovators. He’s a monster, sure, but his Ted Talk would probably generate a lot of clicks.
And if people like Riz Ahmed’s Rick happen to get hurt along the way? One of the most insidious ideas woven throughout “Nightcrawler” is the concept that Bloom, having backed his way into his current career, now holds his “employee” to the standards he never needed to meet. Bloom’s constant assurances that Rick is lucky to be on the ground floor of such an exciting growth operation is another way that Gilroy coopts the language of speculative investment. Rick’s untimely fate – his willingness to put himself in harm’s way for what amounts to glorified gig economy work – also shows the double-standard in place as part of this startup dream. It is not enough to work hard and succeed; you must also refuse to offer any assistance to those who come after you unless they can follow the very narrow path you carved out for yourself.
There are any number of ways you can explore the themes of “Nightcrawler.” Depending on your mood, Gilroy’s film can be viewed as a condemnation of gig culture, a warning bell for the way local news subtly affirms racist worldviews, or as the mirror universe for the American dream. What cannot be denied, however, is how Gilroy and Gyllenhaal present a system that both shapes and is shaped by the greed of those who participate in it. In the end, it may only be the sociopaths who learn to survive and thrive.