Solving Violent Anti-Violence: Nightcrawler (2014), dir. Dan Gilroy
There are few things that film people love more than talking about themselves (case in point: you’re looking at it). Ergo, there are few films film people love making more than films about film. The beauty of cinema, the contradiction, the history, and so on; you get the gist. And one of the most popular sub-sub-genres of this bothersome little sub-genre pertains specifically to films armed against the continued depiction of violence in, you guessed it, film.
In a wonderful show of self-sustaining economy, these movies almost always fall prey to their own selected villains, graphically sensationalizing violence in exactly the manner that they so steadfastly moralize against (for heaven’s sake, Natural Born Killers flaunted an anti-violent media message right up until two teenagers invoked in the halls of Columbine). These films teach by unfortunate example, ultimately crafting a brilliantly self-reflexive system that only leaves room for more anti-violent films down the road. It’s a system that feeds off of itself so fluidly, in fact, that it’s almost a shame how Nightcrawler manages to break that loop. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
By all accounts, Nightcrawler is a perfectly ordinary film. Structurally, it follows the most essential moralistic formula possible: the character has a problem, he finds a morally ambiguous solution to that problem, and upon repeated instances of employing said solution he falls deeper and deeper into depravity, leading to an ultimate tragic ending. It’s one of the easiest ways to craft a story, and the regimented, step-ladder elevation of Lou Bloom’s video business follows it perfectly. By all accounts, then, this should be one of the most boring films ever made.
I mean, violence is bad, right? Staging violence is bad. Filming it is bad, television is exploitative, journalistic ethics really exist only in the realm of trivial university theses and brief op-eds in the New York Times: none of this is news (the main characters here certainly know it), and almost none of it is genuine when it is being told to us by a cold-hearted camera. So why is this film even watchable in the slightest?
And Jake Gyllenhaal, I mean, he’s brilliant and perfect for this role, but is that any surprise? His gaze has always hinted at a certain canned madness, and it’s nothing novel to see him model sociopathy on screen. As engaging as his performance may be, it’s not the most groundbreaking event of the year, and it can’t be the sole reason we keep watching. The splendid technique that laces the film is no different; though I am unceasingly amazed by the crispness and fluidity of the film’s depiction of nighttime LA, it’s not enough to describe why this is the masterpiece that it is. As Nina tells us, you need more than a pretty picture to keep the audience watching: you need suspense, and true, existential horror.
And Nightcrawler keeps thrill in no short supply; except again, its thrill isn’t just derived from bloody waterworks or gruesome killings, as would be expected from a run-of-the-mill anti-violence work. Its thrill is hard to find, seeping in through the cracks before the audience can even quite put their finger on it. It’s a beautiful show of misdirection, really.
When the film first opens, we already kinda know what it’s about (again, knowing where all of this must inevitably end, why does anyone agree to even watch this thing, much less enjoy it?). We meet Lou Bloom, our textbook sociopath, trapped in the showman’s spotlight offered by a questioning security guard, and already his sharp smile tells us who he is. Every inch of him, every twitch and syllable and tiny muscular movement, is offered for the sake of profit: introducing himself, he tells us, “Who am I? I’m a hard worker, I set high goals, and I’ve been told that I’m persistent…My motto is, ‘If you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket.’” He wears sunglasses during the day, as if afraid that his stone-eyed gaze will betray how empty his eyes are without a dollar sign to focus on; even when relaxing in the open daylight of the beach, he’s thinking about his next job and the bike he’s going to steal.
Like a true psychopathic character, we know little about who he is and where he comes from. To have a backstory is to be humanized, to be placed into a place familiar to and preferable for the audience. Furthermore, like a true villain, we’re given little purpose to sympathize with him (excepting Gyllenhaal’s charming wide-eyed gaze, of course. Yes, I know I’ve called his manner both psychopathic and charming. Will anyone, besides his PR assistant, really oppose me on that, though?); there is no inner monologue, no explanation to his actions, no justification or sympathetic detail. No one knows where the Big Bad Wolf came from or why he did what he did, after all; they know only that he was a heartless wolf lying in Grandmother’s bed.
And yet, we can’t be so quick to call Lou the wolf of this story. Deftly amoral, perhaps, but truly an immoral villain? Is that Lou Bloom? He actually seems almost to be an innocent at times, drawn into the attraction of the TV in his apartment with his enraptured smile and gaze. When he earnestly tells Nina that he thinks “television news might just be something that I love as well as something that I happen to be good at,” there’s a genuine joy and passion that’s difficult to ignore. At that same moment, as he stands in the dark TV station before the broadcast, he turns to the towering LA backdrop behind the anchors’ desk and murmurs, “On TV it looks so real.”
If anything, Lou is more of a blank slate than a true villain; he lacks the personality and mal-intent for the latter (and if not wholly a blank space, he still doesn’t feel like the sole, driving source of evil in the story). The moment after which we are introduced to his character - after the security guard and the scrapyard and the first stringer encounter - we subtly come face to face with the second player of the story: a sea of antennae, broadcasting an invisible web against the featureless blue sky. Television stations stand connected by wires and air waves to every affluent home and apartment, while radio jingles and newscast reports ghost over the desert landscape in competing voices.
The spirit of the media is an ever-present and unacknowledged villain, bordering every frame and scene. It lives in these punctuating inserts of open sky and rounded satellite, in the the dark spaces seeping in the wall of screens at the news station, and in the dark eye of each camera and hollow news reporter. In this context materializes Lou’s true psychopathy, as he waters a single, dinghy plant in his shitty one-room. His abrupt, hollow laughter reverberates against the poorly lit, dust-blue walls; the genuine spark that lies behind his emotional response is nullified by his stark surroundings and the glowing TV screen that illuminates them. The sheer psychopathy of that laughter, his eyes glued to the glowing screen, does not solely lie on his shoulders. Instead, it’s in the media chatter, living in the gaunt shadows that surround him.
Here lies the first piece of brilliance: the true villain of the story isn’t a definable person or object. Instead, the source of evil in this story moves like a malevolent spirit, permeating each shot, haunting the edges of the screen, and attracting Lou to its glowing madness.
To successfully critique the consumption of violent media, however, simply identifying the rightful villain is not enough. Don’t get me wrong, this is a tantamount achievement in and of itself - how subtly the filmmaking reveals this growing horror! how straightforward and intrinsically understandable it is all the same! how real the dread of this ever-present, unquenchable force! - but to truly accomplish this task, a level of self-acknowledgement is warranted. It is not enough to simply identify the problem; the film has to admit its place in forwarding it as well. Otherwise, it remains just another ignorant display of massacre.
But Nightcrawler, of course, accomplishes this as well. Just as Lou is drawn in deeper and deeper by the force of media, so is the audience: as he remarks about halfway through, “A proper frame not only draws the eye into a picture but keeps it there longer, dissolving the barrier between the subject and the outside of the shot.” (And this ‘dissolution’ subconsciously applies to the audience as well). Furthermore, it is no mere coincidence that Lou here sounds almost as if he might just be an ordinary, artistic filmmaker (even as Nina reminds him, “Is that blood on your pants?” “I didn’t see that”) discussing the merits of cinematic technique.
The synergetic growth between his nature as a filmmaker and his increasingly immoral actions continues as Lou takes greater and greater care in his work. At the outset of the story, the audience only views gore through secondhand screens, catching a glimpse of blackened red on a passing newscast or the display of Lou’s camera. The first time we come face to face with any actual violence is about 40 minutes in, when Lou moves a body to create a better shot, as if he’s simply a set designer managing the area. As we view the body, we become complicit with him, and Gilroy’s camera, beautifully self-aware, becomes complicit with his for photographing it. Lou continues, melodramatically framing bullet holes with brightly colored magnets and ultimately even creating a narrative of his own: visiting the wealthy house were the huge shootout happens, he thoughtfully paces the story to reveal, one, two, then three gruesome bodies before coming upon a baby’s crib, which he reveals to be empty only after adequately mounting the tension. At the same time, the musical score - previously opposed or indifferent - now markedly eggs him on, providing an emotional backdrop that hooks the audience in. “You have a good eye,” Nina tells him. And all the while, he begins to increasingly imitate the malevolent spirit of the media with his own actions, hovering at the edges of other people’s lives, unceasing and persistent as all hell.
In the spirit of Lou’s directorial words, the border between the fictional filmmaker and the real is dissolved, and the audience is drawn into these pictures of violence much in the same way that Lou is drawn in by the lure of television media. Ultimately, the film not only places blame, but becomes self aware with its own part in that action, revealing the problem instead of ignoring it.
Notable too is the fact that all of this is done without heavily relying on shots of ruined corpses or bloody deaths; the film is suffused with violence, but it never revels in it. Instead, darkness is found in other places - the true evil of the media, Lou’s attraction to it - and even projected onto the audience as well, as we are dragged into further and further complicity with Louis Bloom’s actions. Though its construction is simple, the film is a crowning example of its kind: with this complex multi-dimensionality, Nightcrawler manages to address, if not all, then nearly all of the possible facets of the ‘violent anti-violent film’ cinematic genre.
Keywords: Dan Gilory, indie, Jake Gyllenhaal, recent, violence, media, commentary, positive, film review