not in our stars, but in ourselves
21/52: A movie you’ve been meaning to see
As you can probably imagine, given my output lately, this particular category is almost impossibly long and large and intimidating. There are all the classics I’ve yet to see, all the foreign films I’ve yet to see, all the arthouse films I’ve yet to see, etc., etc., etc. We’d be here all day if I just listed them all. Therefore, I went for an especially easy, low-hanging fruit: a movie that came out last year, that I’d meant to see in a theatre, and that I’d heard good things about. Even that particular sub-category is alarmingly massive – but here we are with Nightcrawler.
Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an odd, twitchy young man living in Los Angeles. When we meet him, he’s stealing scrap metal and trying to bargain with the salvage yard to get a better price for it. He then asks for a job, or even an internship, but the foreman rebuffs him: he doesn’t hire thieves. When Lou is driving home that night, he passes a fiery car crash. He gets out of his car to watch two policemen try to rescue the woman trapped in the wreck, a barely contained look of wonder and contentment on his face. A two-man “stringer” crew arrives in a van: equipped with a police scanner, they seek out violent crimes and accidents, film them, and sell the video to news stations. Lou asks if they’re hiring. They’re not. Undaunted, Lou steals a fancy bike, sells it at a pawn shop, and buys himself a cheap camcorder and police scanner. When he records the last moments of a carjacking victim and sells the video to one of the lower rated local news stations. Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the graveyard shift news director, is impressed with Lou’s ability to capture the kind of gory, fear-mongering footage she wants. Lou works hard, and becomes a successful one-man operation – successful enough to hire an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed). Rick is desperate enough for money to accept Lou’s $30 per night, even if he doesn’t quite agree with Lou’s approach to finding and filming the “news.” Nina, for her part, is desperate enough for better ratings that she accedes to nearly every request Lou makes: from more money to more prestige to simply sleeping with him. Lou has figured out how to capitalize on other people’s misery, so much so that he brags to a detective, “I’d like to think if you’re seeing me, you’re having the worst day of your life.” No kidding.
Needless to say, this is a dark, dark movie: tonally, morally, thematically. Lou is a sort of gaunt, grubby cousin of Patrick Bateman. He’s ambitious, smart, ruthless, devoid of anything like a conscience. When Rick accuses him of lacking basic human understanding, Lou fires back: “What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?” He’s always convinced (and often correct) that he’s the smartest person in the room, and that no one else is quite worthy of his respect.
And you know, I don’t doubt that news organizations across the country are nearly fully staffed (not to mention run) by people like him. It’s been a long, long time (if there was ever such a time) since mainstream media offered anything like cogent analyses of the issues of the day. The 24-hour news culture has conditioned Americans, at the very least, to expect a steady stream of gruesome images, to want to see other people’s private tragedies as national news; but never to accept or invite a more nuanced view of the big picture. If it bleeds, it leads. If it challenges people’s assumptions about the world and their place in it, and forces them to consider an issue or two, forget about it. Sociopathy on the part of news outlets feeds perfectly into American apathy and complacence. Lou knows that we live in a world where Facebook trending topics – celebrity gossip, natural disasters, car crashes or roof collapses or whatever else – end up on the air on actual TV news programs, whether it’s a dinky little local news outfit like Nina’s or big bad CNN. Nina tells Lou to think of their “news” philosophy as a woman running, screaming, with her throat cut. She emphasizes that there’s nothing to get ratings like a nice white family in the suburbs, falling victim to “urban” crime committed by black or brown people. It’s despicably cynical, even nihilistic, but it’s exactly the kind of garbage that Lou can deliver. He started out stealing scrap metal, and he ends up stealing human dignity. I guess that’s a step up in the world, in some way.
All that ranting aside, the movie never moralizes or sentimentalizes anything. This is just the state of news in America. There’s no one to root for, nothing to hope for. The “news” we’re fed is culled from other people’s personal tragedies; the people feeding us the news, quite plainly, must hate and disrespect us; and we accept it all without blinking an eye. Rick is almost a moral compass, in that he repeatedly objects to Lou’s methods and motivations – but he’s along for the ride, too.
It’s interesting, in this Los Angeles-set film, that Lou stalks human misery as a paparazzo stalking celebrities. Other cities may be less aggressive with their “stringer” crews, or they may be equally bad. Writer-director Dan Gilroy seems, however, to show us the logical conclusion of our voracious appetite for spying on other people’s crummy little lives: we may have started out clamoring for views of the rich and famous, mostly localized in LA, but we’ll gawk at anyone’s misfortune, anywhere. It’s cynical, but it’s certainly not wrong. If you don’t believe me, watch the news tonight.
P.S. My pithy boyfriend provided a much more succinct review: “Nightcrawler is a pretty great Brett Ratner origin story.”