Nightcrawler (2014)

Nightcrawler (2014)
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Kevin Rahm
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit
Music by James Newton Howard
Edited by John Gilroy
Written and directed by Dan Gilroy
Rating: 9,5 out of 10

(spoilers ahead)

Nightcrawler is a brilliantly intelligent movie, centered around an amazing performance by Jake Gyllenhaal following a very focused and clever screenplay and direction by Dan Gilroy. The movie knows exactly what it wants to do and what it wants to talk about. Every aspect of the movie caters to that goal, the captivating nighttime images by Robert Elswit, the beautiful score by James Newton Howard and John Gilroy’s editing. It’s an exceptional movie in the way it presents its story, its tone and in its protagonist. It warrants a deep analysis and while this will be long, it doesn't even come close to everything the movie offers.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a former thief who becomes a stringer for filming accidents and crime for a local news station in Los Angeles. My thesis is that he is a poster child of our culture, following everything we are taught and becoming emotionless and unstoppably ambitious. But what is his ambition? On the surface it seems like he is after money or even fame, but if you look closer you’ll see that it is all about power. The driving force in our culture is having power and throughout the movie Lou does nothing else but finding ways to get more power. Of course the movie also says something about media, but I think it uses the media to tell a story about a power-obsessed individual who has learned that to get power you have to dispose of feelings, morals, social interaction and remorse.

In the very first scene, that you might forget over the course of the movie, Lou is caught trying to steal some chain-link fence by a security guard. He drops his tool and acts all nice and innocent, while at the same time checking out the guard’s uniform and expensive watch. When he attacks the guard (we never learn what happens to him), does he do it out of fear? To protect himself? Or is it because he wants the watch as a symbol of power? He also talks about the guard’s uniform, another symbol of authority to exert power. In the first shot after the attack we see Lou with the watch, clearly indicating that this is what he was after (and we’ll see the watch on his wrist all through the movie). This, by the way, is all the exposition we get about him. And maybe it’s all we need: he is a person whose past is irrelevant to him, all he cares about is getting more and he is willing to do anything for it. We also see him looking at a store full of expensive cars, another status symbol he will later acquire. The point to note here is that this first establishes that Lou does not change throughout the movie. He is the same character for two hours. A traditional narrative would see him falling down into a pit of getting greedier and becoming more ruthless, but that’s what he is right from the start.

When he sees for the first time an accident being covered by a freelance camera crew (headed by Bill Paxton, in a small but effective role), he immediately sees an opportunity. Notice how, right before he talks to the Bill Paxton character, he looks up at a plane, as if seeing his future of climbing up the career ladder.

In his first competition as a new freelancer with the other stringers, he is willing to go further than them by being more ruthless in filming and later selling it to Nina Romina (Rene Russo, very strong). He wants to know what sells the most and she explains:

Urban crime, creeping into the suburbs. What that means is the victim or victims, preferably well off and white, injured at the hands of the poor or a minority.”

What she is saying is that viewers are most interested in learning about crimes that threaten their power of being the privileged white elite. Threatened by the ones with the least power. Showing those crimes then proves that their power needs to protected and that poor people and minorities are dangerous and shouldn’t have power. Lou is willing to help with that because he believes in his own privilege.

When he hires Rick (Riz Ahmed, heartbreaking), he starts having power over other people. He lies, yes, and pretends to be more than he is, but it doesn’t matter because Lou knows that pretense works in our culture. He pretends to have power and authority and Rick, with a similar desire, goes along, up until the end, even when he doubts him. But that culturally entrenched desire for power is hard to shake off, harder than any doubts you may have. He also hires him to do tasks that seem inferior to him, thereby elevating himself to a higher level of being the boss, of having a company, of having someone to tell him what to do, to exert power.

He gives a monologue later to Nina about him finding out that he believes working in the news is something he loves and is good at. The point is that the media business doesn’t corrupt him, he is perfect there because he has no morals, which are useless in this profession anyway. After that, we see him becoming more and more successful, organizing his list of videos he takes and sells (because list making gives you a great sense of control, I know that feeling) and buys his expensive and fast car, he was eyeing before. He feels powerful enough to tell Rick that he will “terminate” him if he ever spills fuel on his car again.

When he gets Nina to go out on a date with him, he again explains his plan. Not becoming a reporter, gaining fame, but being “the guy who owns the station that owns the camera.” That’s power. He talks about going to the next level. Power. He then “negotiates” with her to start a relationship in exchange for getting more of his news footage. Throughout the conversation he uses the elements of power he has for her and what he wants from her. There is not a word about emotions or even a connection. He sometimes wants to have dinner and sex, that’s it, and she is the one he wants. He doesn’t see a problem in blackmailing her into a relationship, that’s just part of his power play. He wants. He wants to control. In a later scene he tells her

When I say that I want these things I mean that I want them. And I don’t want to have to ask again. And the last thing that I want, Nina, is to do the things that I asked you to do when we’re alone together in your apartment, not like the last time!”

Look at her face after this rant. She is fascinated by his determination. She has to fight for power and control in her job all the time, probably all her life (she is a woman, after all in a men’s business), and he does what she always wanted to do, but without struggle but simply by getting it. This is followed by her controlling the exact words the news anchors are saying. She does not want to be controlled by him but she is like him. There is no payback at the end of the movie, no turning of tables, they find each other in their callous ambition.

Towards the end, we get a (final) conversation between Rick and Lou, where Rick is moving towards his line of what he is willing to do. He blames Lou for being unable to talk to people and Lou responds: “What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?” Our culture has been moving away from connecting with other people to focusing on individual gains for which relationships to other people are in the way. Lou is the personification for this notion, only ambition, total self-control that doesn’t allow emotions or bonds to other human beings.

The last scenes do not show Lou being arrested or falling into traps set up by his immoral behavior. All we see is that he succeeds. He succeeds with Nina who seems to stay on his side (in a great shot in which we see the sacrificial lamb of Rick) and who is impressed that he sacrificed Rick for success, and she is thanking Lou, as if he has helped her to allow her true self of being merciless to come out.

He succeeds in not getting arrested for murder, walking out of the police precinct in the bright sunlight and going back into she shadows (with a close-up of the watch still on his wrist). He never is seen in the sunlight without his sunglasses, like a true vampire.

And in the final shots he succeeds in having more power than before by having more employers to which he delivers the final line that hits the viewer in the guts: “But remember: I will never ask you to do anything, that I wouldn’t do myself.” The twist of course is that we have seen (and remember, from the very start of the movie) that there is nothing he wouldn’t do. He wants power and he does everything to get it, that’s all there is. He succeeds because our culture rewards him for it, because it created someone like him. And as the ending shows, there are always plenty of people in line wanting to be the same.