Nightcrawler’s Frightening Look At Entitlement And AmbitionPosted: November 6, 2014
I think there are plenty of people who think that the modern generation is listless, apathetic and/or entitled, and on some level they’re probably right. I also think that you could say the same thing of every generation since the Vietnam War, as subsequently depicted in movies such as Taxi Driver, American Psycho and Fight Club. Of course, those movies really demonstrate that there’s a simmering anger and frustration underneath whatever self-absorption seems to dominate a given generation. I humbly submit that Nightcrawler could easily be considered my generation’s entry into this little tradition of cinema, one that mines that same convergence of anger and self-absorption while wrapping it in the media-driven, exploitative nature of our times.
In this particular case, the chronicle of The Angry Young Man is set against the backdrop of news media, and Nightcrawler says plenty just about that topic. The film depicts the news as callous, bloodthirsty and ratings-hungry, and it’s far from the first film to present this worldview. What makes it all doubly grim is that this isn’t like Network, where a major corporation is mining agony for commerce. Rather, it’s just some second-rate local affiliate station that is encouraging such inhuman handling of very human suffering. That setting makes for much more specific and off-putting viewing, as it grounds the awful behavior of the news into much more intimate (and relatively unimportant) terms. By keeping such callous exploitation limited to the actions of our central characters and such low-level stakes, it highlights the callousness of their behavior. It also reflects the kill-or-be-killed mentality that permeates much of the professional world, particularly in the media, in a way we can more personally relate to.
But all of this is meaningless without the frightening personality of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) to bounce off of. Lou is a really bizarre person on the surface: early in the film when he’s trying to pitch himself as an employee to a foreman, everything he says sounds canned and phony as if he’s reciting a speech that he constructed out of buzzwords and has recited hundreds of times before. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that this is just the way Lou communicates with people. So much of what he says sounds like it’s cribbed from self-help books about how to be successful in a corporate environment that it becomes laughable to the point of pity (though it actually works pretty often). It’s a means of expression that suggests not only that Lou doesn’t really know how to interact with other people, but that in his mind he is already a world-class professional who deserves respect and admiration. When he starts to refer to his two-man operation as “Video Production News” it only comes off as a ridiculous delusion of grandeur. All of this is built off of a creepy intensity, this sense that Lou is willing to do anything to be the person he thinks he is, even if it involves completely ruining people around him. It’s an attitude that goes very well with the unfortunate ethics of his employer.
That employer is Nina (Rene Russo), a veteran reporter-turned producer. Unlike Lou’s entitled and youthful ambition, Nina is driven only by a need to keep her head above water. While she might act more natural and more identifiably human than Lou does, Nina is just as detached from the people around her as Lou. And in seeing these two bounce off each other, it becomes clear that they see the subjects of their work (and maybe even their colleagues) as assets and tools, non-entities that can be used and disposed of as necessary for their success. For Lou this comes from his belief that he is a Big Shot waiting to happen, but for Nina this comes from being worn down by her failure to advance; in either case, the result is that other people’s goals don’t matter, because Lou and Nina haven’t accomplished theirs yet. Indeed, the biggest conflict between the two of them is when Lou’s entitled ambition collides directly with Nina’s desperate survival instinct, and the question becomes which one of them can be more easily dismissed by the other?
To me, this is the (pitch black) heart of Nightcrawler. It’s about people who dehumanize the people around them to the point that they dehumanize themselves by default. It’s about people who see themselves as deserving the Big Break just by being, and how scary it can be when someone with no real regard for others takes that mentality to heart. Nina might serve as a physical embodiment of the news media’s self-serving goals, but as a person she just represents those that never made it to the big time, who are willing to bend over backwards to stay just where they are. Lou, on the other hand, represents my generations narcissistic entitlement, but one completely unfettered by social norms or sensible restraint. Lou has no qualms about fucking over everyone around him, because in his mind they’re just obstacles to his just reward. After all, Lou earned the money to buy his lottery ticket… he deserves to win big, doesn’t he?