The following contains spoilers for Nightcrawler. You have been warned.
We’ll dispense with the typical preamble, because Erik Paschall and I had a lot to say about Nightcrawler, it’s main character Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the horror such a character inspires. Without further ado…
Erik: First off, just let me say considering the sad lack of horror films that got a wide release this October, how happy I was to see something genuinely frightening this Halloween. Nightcrawler filled a void Annabelle and Ouija were never going to.
Tim: I think you’re far more concerned about the availability of horror fare than I am, but I’ll stand with you on Nightcrawler. It’s a super creepy film that veers into terrifying by being a very smart thriller featuring one of the best characters I’ve seen all year.
Erik: I have no problem declaring this is the best combination of horror, black (very black) comedy, and character study I’ve seen since American Psycho.
Tim: Now that’s a comparison I hadn’t thought of, but you’re right, it absolutely fits here. And American Psycho is definitely closer to a true horror film. I’m curious – what makes you call Nightcrawler part of the horror genre? At least in a traditional sense, it doesn’t quite seem to fit there to me.
Erik: It depends how you define horror, and I’m sure everyone’s definition varies according to them. For me horror doesn’t have to make you scream, it doesn’t have to contain “BOO!” moments. Horror, can just be something that fills you with a lingering sense of dread. And, if you want to define horror as something that scares you, well I was scared watching this. Scared for just about any person Lou Bloom interacted with – at no point did I not wholeheartedly believe he could turn and strangle someone to death. Plus, the whole scene in the house, you know the one, was as traditionally frightening as you could get.
Tim: That’s so interesting. I saw Lou in a similar way, but never quite as unhinged as it seems you did, or at least not from the get-go. I LOVE how his character is introduced – willing to do anything, it seems, but hesitant, trying (maybe not all that hard, but trying nonetheless) to do the right thing. And then you have these layers as Lou becomes more and more manipulative and driven to be worse and worse. People have asked me what I thought of the film, and the description I keep coming back to is Lou’s smile. Just as the saying goes, it never goes to his eyes. So unsettling.
Erik: I thought Lou was a very simple character – interesting, but simple. However he talked or behaved, whatever he did, however he did it, his choice of words, etc. were all for the purpose of getting him ahead in life. I never believed he was trying to do the right thing, at least not for the sake of doing something right. Everything he did was self serving. He wasn’t corrupted by the world – the world of nightcrawlers – he entered, he simply found a world that allowed him to be who he truly was.
Tim: I like that phrase you used, “at least not for the sake of doing something right.” Lou’s a guy who’s just normal enough that he doesn’t invent something new, he just pushes the envelope. So when I say he’s trying to do the right thing, I think I mostly get that sense from the couple of scenes where he’s asking for employment. Lou’s flaw, I think, is that he falls too easily into what’s, well, what’s easy. He sees guys get paid for showing up and shooting cheap footage for two minutes. He’s smart enough to figure out how to do it well and ruthless enough to make sure no one beats him to the quick buck. I disagree that Lou’s a simple character. He may be constructed very simply, but the traits he does have mean he’s constantly changing and adapting.
Erik: I made the comparison to American Psycho because to me Lou Bloom is very similar to Patrick Bateman, in that both of them lacking in empathy. What gave me that impression especially were Lou’s eyes, they didn’t really look like eyes, they were more like scanning devices, observing and analyzing. Combine that with the way he talks. Much like Bateman, many of the things Bloom says are clearly not his own words. He’s quoting books and manuals – like Bateman quotes restaurant and music reviews – because he has determined these are the correct things to say for a given situation, these are the things human beings want to hear.
Tim: I think you just hit the nail on the head. No empathy, that’s exactly what we see by the end of the movie, with Rick dying on the pavement after Lou baited him in. It’s to the credit of Jake Gyllenhaal as an actor and Dan Gilroy as a writer and director that we’re ever unsure about that, but while I can pretty well say I never trusted Lou, I don’t think I suspected the worst from him until late in the movie, even after watching him assault the security guard in the very first scene.
Erik: I became suspicious of him when he delivers that speech to Nina, the news director, about how he’s finally found the thing he wants to do. It sounds very uplifting, but there’s no substance to it, it’s like he’s just quoting from a self-help book. He doesn’t really believe in what he’s saying, but he’s determined this is the right thing to say at the moment. Actually, this is also where the black humor comes in, because if performed differently, this could have been a speech out of an inspirational, uplifting, underdog rags-to-riches film – think they even play some uplifting music while he delivers it. In fact, that’s kind of what I saw this movie as, a dark parody of an underdog story.
Tim: I think there’s a lot of that ethos going on here. On the count of the music, which runs a little cheerier that you’d expect throughout most of the movie, I guess I appreciate the idea behind it, but it was the one part of the movie that really didn’t work for me. It seemed so dissonant (so to speak) to what was happening on screen, it pulled me out of the movie. But the midnight-black humor is definitely there. My favorite/most unsettling instance of it was when Lou starts negotiating a relationship and sex life with Nina. It’s absolutely absurd! But as you’ve already said, that’s how Lou looks at the world. He’s constantly calculating and negotiating. You watch it and you can’t believe anyone would do that, and at the same time can’t believe Lou would do anything but that.
Erik: That’s where the horror comes in. During that scene I was scared for Nina – in fact I was more concerned for her during that “business negotiation” than I am for most young adults being stalked by killers in slasher films. It was a great scene, on that I thought was only topped by Lou and Rick’s discussion of Rick’s pay raise. If you didn’t hear any of Rick’s side of the conversation, you’d think Lou was just being hard-assed but reasonable employer. And again, I was really scared for Rick – and pretty certain he was gonna die at that point.
Tim: I didn’t foresee his demise, but Rick was a great contrast to Lou. In addition to the pay negotiation scene, there was also the interview bit that was pretty fantastic. And as we’ve talked about now, so are most of the movie’s component parts. I liked Nightcrawler a lot, but as I walked out of the theater I also felt a little bit dirty. As deplorable as Lou and his tactics are, he wins. And I spent some time trying to puzzle out what the movie was trying to communicate thematically. Certainly there’s a condemnation of, or at least a warning against, shock-value journalism, and maybe the decline of ethics in a world where the way we consume media has become so much about who gets there first. But again, Lou is the one who succeeds. Maybe that’s the point in itself. As much as I love Lou as a character, I hate him as a person, and if the system is one where he comes out on top, maybe the system needs to change.
Erik: Again, like American Psycho, Nightcrawler is a film where the bad guy wins – depending on your interpretation of the former film’s ending, but that’s beside the point. They both present a circle of society – whether it’s corporate America or morning news – where being a sociopath is advantageous. I certainly didn’t want Lou to win either – just like I didn’t want Patrick Bateman to get away with murder – but the world the film created wasn’t one where him losing was an option. It’s interesting too how Lou’s world shapes him somewhat, but how he in turn shapes it. Nina has basically turned to the dark side by the end – when she thanks Lou for the footage of Rick’s murder, I swear there were tears in her eyes – and though Lou failed to corrupt Rick, how about his new “interns?” How pure will they remain?
Tim: Oh, man, I felt so sorry for those poor souls. They can’t have had an idea what they were getting into.
Erik: When Lou says, “I’ll never ask you to do something I wouldn’t do,” I don’t think he’s lying, but he probably doesn’t have to worry about them getting him killed – like he did Rick – because at this point he’s probably realized how few people are willing to go as far as he is. “Maybe it’s not that I don’t understand people, maybe I just don’t like them,” I think sums it up.
Tim: Going back to the idea that the movie can be seen as a condemnation of any culture in which people like Lou rise to the top, isn’t that just chilling? The idea that there’s such little care – again, I think “empathy” is exactly the right word here – in the world that we wouldn’t be outraged at…well, in the context of the movie, sharing in the police outrage that, at least for the moment, they can’t do more to prosecute Lou.
Erik: Well, the film does take place in Los Angeles, which could be seen by many as city of contradictions. There’s the glitz and glamour of Hollywood right next to the streets strewn with poverty. The lovely homes of beverly hills are not that far from the slums, and all you need to get from place to place, from class to class is the right street or highway. Someone from the outside looking in could think, how could anyone allow that to happen? Then they might come to the conclusion the only people with power or clout are unfeeling, devoid of any thoughts but there own ascension to power. Maybe everyone who ever made it in Los Angeles is a Lou Bloom?
Tim: Oh jeez, that just gave me a grossly inappropriate but funny thought: What if Jake Gyllehaal from End of Watch ran into Jake Gyllenhaal from Nightcrawler? I’d pay to see that. More seriously, though, I do wonder what kind of a different effect Nightcrawler will have on people who aren’t familiar with Los Angeles. There’s the scene when they’re driving and Lou gets mad because Rick sent him on Coldwater Canyon and there’s no place to pass, and I’m thinking, “Yeah, he’s right. Coldwater’s too twisty.” Then there’s another scene that was shot about a block from where I live. It grounded the movie for me in a way I don’t think I would have experienced if it had been set somewhere else.
Erik: LA’s myriad of twisty streets have been a focus of many films that focus on the city itself – especially one classified as neo-noir, which you could argue Nightcrawler fits into. I’m thinking Drive and Collateral specifically. It’s part of what defines the city’s identity – or at least its film identity.