Forget the Media: Another View of Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler is about a freelance news videographer who hunts down the most graphic shots of mangled bodies and still-warm blood he can find, and then sells them to local television news. He becomes quite good at his craft and makes lots of money. And if that was all it was all it was about, it would be a compelling condemnation of our current media culture.

But it's about much more than that. And as such, it is far more compelling and far scarier.

When the videographer in question, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), repositions a dead body in the aftermath of a traffic accident in order to create a better shot, it might seem inhuman. But there's really nothing new there. Haskell Wexler did something very similar 45 years ago in Medium Cool, a movie which is in fact primarily concerned with the role of the media in modern America, and which should be much better-known than it is in 2014. Several years later, the Sidney Lumet/Paddy Chayefsky collaboration Network provided the definitive satire on the subject. I think first-time director Dan Gilroy is aiming at a broader and more insidious modern problem in Nightcrawler.

The most terrifying moments in Nightcrawler do not involve Louis staging crime scenes or manipulating information to benefit his film clips. The brazenness he shows in ducking under police tape to get closer to the scene is de rigueur in the paparazzi era. It is when he talks about his ambition, his carefully-considered business plan, his savvy branding strategies, that Louis is at his scariest. And that is where Nightcrawler moves beyond the mostly-effective satire on modern media and becomes a sharp condemnation of 21st-century corporate mentality.

I had a feeling something was off in Gilroy's message about the media as I watched Louis interacting with TV news producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo). If Gilroy wanted to say something specifically about the way "news" has been commodified in 2014, a smart guy like Louis would not be going to a third-rate local network affiliate. That's so 1980s -- back when local network affiliates mattered. Today, they have become so marginalized that most media outlets would jettison them in a heartbeat if the FCC would allow it. If this were about media, at the very least, Louis would be going to cable news programs which have been making good coin by engaging in the fear-mongering that Nina champions. And he'd more likely be seeking out online tabloids -- especially sites like TMZ or Radar that may want to move their celebrity-based reportage into general suburban blood and mayhem.

I was also confused while watching as to the effectiveness of the other main figure in the movie, Riz Ahmed's Rick. Rick is a very weak character. Gilroy gives him the briefest of backstories. He is young and homeless and ethnic, and desperately needs the job which Louis offers. He speaks up for himself in a halting voice but is generally overwhelmed by the hurricane that is Louis. In all their scenes together, Louis is the driving force. Rick's role is almost entirely reactive. When he does attempt to stand up for himself, Louis has no trouble putting him down. As I watched, it seemed clear to me that Gilroy was far more interested in Louis and Nina, and even in rival nightcrawler Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), with whom Louis may or may not partner. Upon reflection, I've come to believe that Gilroy essentially abandoned the character of Rick on purpose, because it serves as a good metaphor for his larger message.

So if Nightcrawler is not, at its core, a condemnation of the current condition of news media, what is that larger message? Gilroy's movie is about a society that has become unmoored, a society in which traditional economic and moral structures no longer function. Corporations may have always been greedy, but in Nightcrawler those corporations don't even exist. They are not present to offer a pension or health care or a set of guiding principles. It is crucial that Louis is a freelancer. He has taken the place of the corporation. This shouldn't be surprising. After all, corporations are treated as individuals today. The Supreme Court said so. Why shouldn't individuals turn into corporations as well? Corporations with no accountability beyond individualistic morality. No checks or balances. Louis essentially can do whatever he wants. Nina tries at times to rein him in. Rick raises tepid moral objections. Late in the story, law enforcement tries to intervene. None of these entities make a dent, and in Nightcrawler, there are no other regulators to be found.

Louis, as he says twice in the movie, is a very quick learner. He is disciplined and motivated. And he has a computer. He applies the lessons he learns through his online research. He takes business classes. He gathers facts and figures pertinent to his career. He speaks the language of entrepreneurship very well. He negotiates in a very straightforward and aggressive manner. He counsels Rick on ethics and cautions him not to sully his reputation in the business world. He is often refreshingly honest and direct. Until such time as it no longer benefits him. Then he commits various acts, usually hovering just around the threshold of criminal activity, without the slightest regard for anything beyond his own self-interest. That is the message of Nightcrawler. There have always been ambitious "go-getters" like Louis Bloom. But today they have more power at their disposal, and less regulation of their actions, than ever before. They have a reach that extends far beyond your local network news.

I didn't think so much about Medium Cool or even Network while watching Louis Bloom at work. Those movies are more genuinely about media. I was reminded more of movies from that earlier era that featured very sharp outsiders who used modern technology to foster their careers: Lonesome Rhodes, the monstrous media personality played by Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd (1957) and J. Pierpont Finch, the ambitious young ladder-climber played both on stage and screen by Robert Morse in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (film version, 1967). Both are as unscrupulous as Louis Bloom, though they represent opposite ends of the personality spectrum. Lonesome is brutal and coarse, arguably more cruel than Louis. Finch (or Ponty, as he is called), is a pussycat. His role is primarily comic, and though he has the "bold brave spring of the tiger that quickens his walk," he is ultimately a good guy. In the version of America that produced Lonesome and Ponty, a monster like Lonesome could be stopped and defeated, while an ambitious nice guy like Ponty could learn a couple of lessons and be rewarded. Louis Bloom is their 21st-century progeny: an evil bastard who, upon learning a few lessons, cannot be stopped.

And what of the poor abandoned Rick? Whereas Louis and Nina are members of the old school American immigrant class, classes which have long-established identities as Americans (and not as Jewish-Americans or Italian-Americans), Rick is the newer ethnically-diverse immigrant. I think the decision to give Rick minimal backstory was deliberate. Rick is essentially fodder. His employer sells him on the traditional American dream, but has no intention of allowing the dream to come true. When corporate self-interest is at stake, people like Rick have no standing. But Louis? If you listen closely, you can almost hear Louis singing "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."