Dan Gilroy’s new thriller “Nightcrawler” has steadily picked up momentum over the past month, going from rave reviews at its TIFF debut to topping the box office this weekend (albeit just barely). Many have hailed the film as a wickedly funny media satire, with Stephanie Zacharek praising it in contrast to the “stolid and humorless ‘Gone Girl'” and Andrew O’Hehir noting the film’s intelligence in showing how the media feeds off of crime that scares white people.
For others, though, the film’s depiction of television news as a ratings-hungry, ethically questionable monster can be answered with a resounding “Duh.” Scott Foundas of Variety writes that “Gilroy seems to think he’s really blowing the lid off something here about the depths to which journalists will sink, and the gross manipulations of TV news,” while Slant Magazine’s Chris Cabin argues that the film “only offers a familiar vision of today’s newsman and producers as misery peddlers” and A.O. Scott calls its primary target “more than a little shopworn.” Even primarily positive reviews from Scott Tobias and Mike D’Angelo criticized the film’s cynicism and scolding tone toward the media.
Here’s the thing: While those elements are undeniably present, the film isn’t primarily a media satire. The film has earned a number of comparisons to “Network” (along with “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” parallels), but in “Network,” the media is the battle. In “Nightcrawler” it’s merely the battleground where the film makes more cogent, interesting and darkly funny points about can-do capitalistic spirit, corporate attitudes and self-taught businesspeople — point driven home by Lou’s LinkedIn profile.
Rene Russo’s Nina in particular has earned comparisons to Faye Dunaway’s “Network” character Diana. Both are not terribly scrupulous television producers who enable sensationalistic, viewer-drawing material (Howard Beale’s mad rantings in “Network,” Lou Bloom’s crime-scene videos in “Nightcrawler”), but their differences are far more interesting than their similarities. Diana was, as another character described her, “television incarnate,” motivated by pure, unadulterated ambition, someone on the rise. By contrast, Nina is falling, someone motivated by desperation and fear of losing her job. That doesn’t make her ultimate participation in Lou’s actions excusable, but it does alter the film’s treatment of the TV producer from “what a monster” to “it’s a living.”
Far more Diana-ish is Lou himself, though one could also posit him as a version of “American Psycho’s” Patrick Bateman who’s less adept at blending in as normal but equally shrewd. Christian Bale based his performance in “American Psycho” on Tom Cruise’s studied mannerisms, and Gyllenhaal’s character seems to have based his own demeanor on the kind of people who tried to imitate those already stilted tics, only to come out with something that’s gone from not quite right to way, way off. What makes Gyllenhaal’s performance so remarkable is that he takes corporate sloganeering and motivational speaking and modulates his delivery ever so slightly to make both recognizable and alien, something that simultaneously highlights Lou’s own disconnect from humanity and the inherent lack of humanity in corporate thinking.
Lou makes points like “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission” or “Good things come to those who work their asses off” thinly veiled threats and full-bodied expressions of his lack of interest in others’ well-being. Lou nearly never stops smiling, but almost everything he says has the clear message of “You will help me or I will get you the fuck out of my way.” It works because he’s very good at what he does, and very good at adjusting to whatever the situation calls for (see: how his hair goes from slicked-back and professional to a hippie-ish ponytail depending on what he needs to pass as).
Lou’s cheerful sociopathy, then, is the concept of capitalistic cruelty turned from economic horror (the film is very much a post-recession movie) to human horror, the agent that pushes saner people like Nina to stop caring about the “should” of her situation and just push forward into doing it. Again, that’s doesn’t let her or the media she represents off the hook so much as it indicts the motivational factors as much as the enabling factors, a kind of self-interest ouroboros on both a media level and a basic humanity level. Zacharek negatively compared “Gone Girl” to “Nightcrawler,” but the two have a similar relationship between their central characters in that the sociopaths of both films bring out the best (and worst) in their partners, with “Nightcrawler” arguably going further than “Gone Girl” to suggest that the two deserve each other.
The film’s most trenchant points about modern media have little to do with the news. Whenever asked where he’s learned whatever he knows (be it business models or the history of Nina’s career troubles), Loui invariably says he learned it online. Some of the film’s most thrilling montages are not of Lou prowling the streets for car wrecks, but searching news about black-on-white crime or information about police codes online. The film never reaches “Men, Women & Children” levels of alarmism, nor does it explicitly state that lack of person-to-person training gave him his warped idea of how human interaction and networking work (though it could easily be inferred). But it does turn some of the more uncomfortable truths about the digital age, and about just how much can be found by a person more interested in the bottom line than in people, into a truly frightening movie.
That “Nightcrawler” is at least as much (if not more) about capitalism and economics than media hasn’t been ignored by everyone. Matt Zoller Seitz writes that the film uses TV news “as a means to an end — to show how a man who presents as ‘normal,’ even ‘likable’ and ‘motivated’ and ‘capable,’ can be evil, and seduce us into being evil, too.” Scott Renshaw, meanwhile, has called the film an “economic horror story,” probably the best description of the film’s methods and objectives available.
To be fair, some of the film’s detractors (Dana Stevens) and more measured fans (Michael Phillips) recognize this while still arguing that it’s familiar territory, and without speaking in reductive terms of “Didn’t we already know this?”. But “Nightcrawler” is less outright satire than darkly comic horror movie where we’re taken in by a sociopath who’s too creepy to be charming but too charismatic to dismiss and given a look at the kind of skeezy (but, with Gilroy’s assured direction and Robert Elswit’s gorgeous photography, alluring) world that he’ll thrive in.