Lou Bloom is a petty thief, prowling Los Angeles by night while seeking some purpose in his life. He exists on the fringes of society, stealing to survive while also offering himself as an employee prepared to work under any conditions. We see the rejection he must have faced on many occasions, in spite of his ostentatious subservience (“my motto is if you want to win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy the ticket”) and genuine acceptance of the dogma that demands this of him as a precondition for employment. However a chance encounter on the roadside introduces Lou to the world of LA’s stringers, the freelance video journalists chasing ambulances and assaults, striving for the most lurid footage (“if it bleeds, it leads!”) to buy their way into a local news media concerned for crime reporting above all else. Lou is captivated by what they do, the urgency and action which defines it, leading him to take his first fumbling steps into this occupational world. He rapidly advances, soon revealing himself to lack scruples – putting it mildly – with the film closing at what we can only assume is the beginning of his ascendency to power within the seedy world of TV journalism in LA. In the interests of avoiding spoilers, I won’t say precisely what he does but it’s not pleasant.
Jake Gyllenhaal is superb throughout (incidentally, wouldn’t he make the perfect Patrick Bateman if American Psycho was ever remade?) and much of the film depends upon the consistency with which his performance sustains the balance between calm self-mastery and the rage we know exists beneath the surface. Too much of either would have detracted from the sheer creepiness of Lou Bloom, a man equally unblinking when blackmailing his employer into sex as when filming a corpse. The only time Lou’s mask slips is when his ambitions are thwarted, with this experience of denial prompting an outburst of rage as disturbing as it is understated. Other than this, the only emotion we see from him is delight, with involuntary smiles only becoming sinister because of context.
It’s this quality that renders the homolies which he delivers throughout the film quite so unsettling – he regurgitates nuggets of wisdom from the online business courses he consumes autodidactically, advising those around him on their negotiating positions and reflecting on the status of his transactions. However in an important way Nightcrawler isn’t about Lou Bloom’s sociopathy, it’s about his calling: he genuinely loves his newfound profession, exhibiting a natural flair and impulse towards self-improvement that combine to facilitate a rapid ascent into TV journalism and an escape from the precarity that had defined his existence heretofore. We only see hints at his previous life, most pointedly in the certainty with which he recognises that his newfound assistant was leaving sex work behind to work for him, but it seems to have been one that left him driven towards ‘bettering himself’ and with a very particular idea of what ‘better’ entails. He is an American success story, as Henry Barnes puts it in the Guardian, with the satire of this being constructed through the careful arrangements of parts rather than simply holding up Lou’s vacuity as an inditement of the America that produced him. Many aspects contribute to the force with which this critique is conveyed, not least of all the incisive assessment of TV journalism and the endemic insecurity which drives a race to the bottom, however without Lou’s fundamental earnestness I don’t think it would work. He seeks self-improvement, to embrace his newly discovered calling and earnestly strives to make a success of himself through it. The moral bankruptcy is contextual, expressed through Lou but not originating in him – satirising the American dream in terms of the immorality it licenses is far from a novel project but I found Nightcrawler a peculiarly gripping and elegantly constructed example of it.