Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy and starring and co-produced by Jake Gyllenhaal, struck me in a number of ways. Its obvious major theme is the morally bankrupt nature of the news media, and TV news in particular. The point is not made subtly: when Rene Russo’s news director asks the company lawyer if they’re covered to broadcast some particularly shocking footage, the latter responds ‘Legally?’ To which Russo sarcastically snaps ‘No, morally. Of course, legally.’
But it is as a satire of a broader, and particularly 21st century, work culture that I found it most interesting. Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is determined to create himself with the help of online business courses and motivational slogans. It’s as if Travis Bickle’s ‘ONE OF THESE DAYS, I’M GONNA GET ORGANIZ-IZED’ sign was an image macro that linked through to a free webinar on building a business strategy, one so inspiring that any thoughts of assassinating political candidates or liberating underage prostitutes were abandoned as insufficiently in line with his core strengths and goals. (Taxi Driver is an obvious reference point for the film, and for Gyllenhaal’s performance, and not just because someone losing 30 pounds to play a role will always call to mind De Niro — Lou, like Travis, is distinguished by his absolute sincerity and earnestness.)
The first thing Lou does when his fledgling news gathering ‘network’ successfully sells some footage is become an employer, hiring Rick (Riz Ahmed) on the least favourable terms he can negotiate. Throughout the film, a ‘performance review’ that may allow Rick to increase his paltry cash-in-hand wage is continually promised by Lou, and then deferred. In the final scene, three new employees (now given branded polo shirts) are welcomed into Lou’s ‘internship scheme’. The world of Nightcrawler is one of precarious employment in which overwhelming power rests with the employer; the theoretical mobility of the intern, their ability to take their labour elsewhere, is useless when they are living, as Rick admits he is during his interview, hand to mouth.
Nightcrawler is ‘neo-noir’ in look and tone, but also on a structural level, because it plays with film noir tropes in what I think is a genuinely novel way. The archetypal noir plot involves a protagonist being led, through some combination of lust, naivety and stupidity, deeper and deeper into an illegal scheme, until they are trapped by circumstances from which there is no escape except death. Viewed in these terms, there is a ‘noir’ protagonist in Nightcrawler – but it is Rick, not Lou. Drawn fatally into the orbit of an amoral other, Rick follows the trajectory of the noir ‘hero’.
It is Lou, though, whose perspective we follow throughout the film – the femme fatale redrawn in the terms of 21st century commerce. The noir plot is inverted by this focus on Lou (a focus that extends to the soundtrack’s ironic support of Lou’s perspective, with synths swelling with wonder as he views crime scenes). It is also subverted, by the shift from sexual desire to financial dependence. The only sexual relationship is negotiated in business terms. Beyond this, even familial relationships are bankrupt. The ‘home invasion’ murders that drive the latter half of the film are eventually revealed to have been a drug deal gone wrong.
The film’s final subversion is that the classic femme fatale, of course, is ultimately punished for her transgressive acts, whilst Lou ends the film not just alive but thriving. (The penultimate shot, showing Lou walking free from the police station after questioning, appropriately alludes to ‘Verbal Kint’s’ exit in the final scenes of The Usual Suspects.) In Lou’s final speech, delivered to his band of new interns, he tells them that though they may find their work challenging, he won’t ask them to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. Having witnessed during the film the lengths he is prepared to go to, the audience finds a pitch dark irony in these words – but they are significant because they are, from Lou’s perspective, utterly sincere. When we are introduced to Lou in the early scenes of the film, he is stealing copper and chain link fence to sell. After negotiating his fee for the materials from a construction manager, Lou tries to persuade the foreman to hire him – and offers to work as an intern if there are no paying positions available. Lou is shown to be no less desperate than Rick and the other interns he later employs, living no less precariously. He is distinguished only by his absolute embodiment of the virtues demanded by his milieu – perseverance, tenacity, amorality. The logical endpoint of a world structured in purely commercial terms, in a film that amounts to a zero-hours noir.