Saturday, October 3, 2015


NIGHTCRAWLER (2014), written and directed by Dan Gilroy, is a profoundly disturbing movie. The sociopath at the center of the action, Lou Bloom (played with an unctuous and creepy intensity by Jake Gyllenhall) does some horrible things, but it is the venality and complacency of the people and society around him that really got to me.

Bloom has no background at all. He comes into the story stealing copper from a construction site. He proceeds to whack the guard who catches him on the skull, take his watch, and then sell the booty to a contractor who turns him down when he asks for a job: “I don’t hire thieves.” Gyllenhall is more sensitive to the irony than the contractor, who does business with thieves but doesn’t consider himself one. And the contractor is not the only one in the movie who whines about the duplicity and depravity of others while not seeing those same qualities in him or herself. In fact, there is not one character in this movie that is not corrupted or proves to be non- corruptible.

Bloom apparently has no connection to anyone, lives by night and educates himself by day by surfing the internet. He is a 21st century self made man, an autodidact, a polymath, Frederick Douglas as Frankenstein’s monster, the American dream turned nightmare. He has got his eye only on the main chance. The idiom he uses when he is trying to manipulate or extort or deceive his way to the American Dream is a blend of Horatio Alger and Tony Robbins, corporate double speak that means nothing, all about communication and innovation and positivity , growth and negotiation, all those things corporate America holds out to us as the keys to our success, when we really know it is a con, a dodge, that it is not invention and initiative, innovation and hard work, that count, but deceit, cheating, and friends in high places. The vision of the world in this movie is a kind of inversion of the idea that a rising tide helps all boats—in this world, you only succeed by sinking the other guy’s.

And so Bloom sets out to do so. He stumbles across a new way to make money—driving around nighttime LA with a police scanner and a camera, collecting the most lurid images he can find to sell to the local news affiliates. He becomes pretty good, makes some of his own luck by committing a few felonies, hires a desperate guy named Rick he pays less than minimum wage (calling it an “internship”) to help out, and soon he is selling footage to Nina Romina (Rene Russo) at a local news station. Nina cheerfully tells Bloom: “if it bleeds, it leads.” She starts out treating Bloom like a leper, but his stock goes up with the quality (i.e., shock and sleaze) of his work. Still, she sees him not as a real player, but another worker bee. Everyone who underestimates Bloom in this movie suffers. He extorts sex and a foot in the door of the news biz from her in trade for his footage. She at first feigns shock at his offer, but then he tells her he could just go elsewhere, and ratings week is coming, and he starts to look better and better to her.

We learn that not only if it bleeds, it leads, but if the crime happens to middle or upper class people it gets more attention. The strategy is to play on the fear suburbanites have about urban crime landing on their doorsteps (even if it isn’t). So when some people in a chic neighborhood are shot-gunned (it was about drugs, but the news station buries that, because that isn’t as scary as violent urban hoods tired of waiting on you at McDonalds stealing the family jewels, kidnapping the kids, and maybe even dating your daughter), Bloom scores big with bloody, and exclusive, photos.
It’s only going to get worse, and we know it. And there is no hero in this noir tale, or even an anti-hero. Bloom flouts the law (which is not fooled by him, but can’t bring him to heel), gets what he wants, gets away with it all. He even manages to rid himself of a troublesome employee and get the shot of a career at the same time (I couldn’t figure out if the way he did it was illegal, but it was one of the most immoral things I have ever seen a movie character do).

There is nothing redeeming about Bloom, although the movie plays on our expectation that there might be. He is a lonely guy, socially inept, living in a shabby apartment that is so devoid of any kind of hominess that you wonder if there ever could be a home for this guy. And people do treat him like he isn’t there. He’s poor, after all. But at the same time, he is bright, very bright, and maybe he will overcome it all. Maybe he is even a little autistic. Is there anything redeeming about him? Shit, even Hannibal Lecter had a kind of charm, and a code of ethics, kind of.

But in an understated yet great scene, we are disabused of the notion that he deserves any sympathy (which is exactly the amount he has for anyone else). Rick tells the boss he might do better if he understood people more. Bloom responds: “did you ever think it’s not that I don’t understand people, but I just don’t like them?” And Bloom does understand Rick, well enough in fact to make a bundle off of him and get him killed all at once.

I won’t give away the final scene, except to say that Bloom becomes a kind of demonstration of the Heisenberg Principle, not merely observing, but altering the thing observed. It is great and chilling stuff. And the whole thing made me wonder about markets, both those for goods and those for ideas. Is this what we get when both are free? News that is really pornography, intellectually nourishing only in the way eight bowls of Count Chocula would be? And is everything else we sell and buy the same (and everything is for sale in this movie) —unadulterated crap that makes a few people rich and the rest of our lives empty, hollow, and cheap? Perhaps hard news about corporate criminality instead of cartoons about urban bogeymen would serve us better, but that is not what a “free” market for ideas is giving us. The irony, of course, is that movies like this one could be the answer. Then again, this one went from the theaters to pay-per-view faster than you could say “Heaven’s Gate.” Oh, well. You’ve got to give the people what they want. Or do you?

© 2015 Mike Welch

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