Nightcrawler: It’s A Free, Free, Free, Free Country (R)

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Early in Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom sits with his back against a palm tree, staring at a white sand beach under the California sun. Behind him, a bicycler dismounts and chains up his bike. Bloom smiles. The scene cuts to Bloom pawning the same bike. In any other film, such a scene would stretch our credulity. Bloom seems to have seen the bike out the back of his head— or, at very least, he has a peripheral view of well over two hundred degrees. But when you’ve seen Lou Bloom’s eyes, such vision seems quite believable. Jake Gyllenhaal dropped twenty pounds for the role, and he seems to have lost every ounce of that weight above his shoulders. Like a bust of Constantine, his eyes are as big and glossy as shelled, hard-boiled eggs. His eyes bulge out of their sockets, hungrily absorbing the world.

Knowing and learning are key themes to Nightcrawler. The eyes are the seat of judgment in a body (we are found guilty in “the eyes of the court,” for instance), but the way an artist or director alters the normal appearance of the eyes can suggest something special, something particular about the way a character sees the world (the broken glasses in Straw Dogs, say). Gyllenhaal’s eyes are engorged with knowledge, overstuffed and bloated. He is a man who wants to see too much.

While cruising LA after dark, Bloom witnesses a couple cops drag a woman from the wreckage of her burning car and a news crew pulls up to film their heroics. Far more intrigued by the news crew than the news they are filming, Bloom inquires about how much money can be made from the footage, but is rebuffed by videographer Joe Loder (Bill Paxton), who fashions himself a genuine pro who can’t trifle with would-be, small time competitors. Bloom throws himself into learning the trade, spending nights listening to police scanners and memorizing dispatch codes so he can race to crime scenes and capture footage first, then sell it to local news stations for a few hundred dollars.

The exposition of Nightcrawler recalls Drive in that both films begin with bizarrely principled young men navigating Los Angeles after dark. In Drive, the Driver firmly states his promise to would-be thieves. Once thieves leave the Driver’s car, they have exactly five minutes, and the Driver will stay for five minutes, no matter what. Similarly, at the beginning of Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom delivers a homily to a scrap metal dealer (from whom he wants a job) about the state of America, his own generation, and the value of hard work. However, unlike the Gosling picture, Nightcrawler delves further and further into that little homily for almost two hours. Bloom develops his personal credo, expounds pieces of it to others, refines it, sanctifies it with blood sacrifice (to not put it mildly).

Bloom attaches himself to the first news station willing to pay him for his footage. Nina (a tired but confident Rene Russo) is the opportunistic morning news director with whom Bloom wants a professional, exclusive relationship. Right off the bat, she recognizes the plasticity of Bloom’s soul. He nuzzles in close with policemen trying to save lives, apparently with no regard for how he might be impeding them from doing their jobs. Quite early in the film, the audience has seen enough of Bloom to know he could freeze the mercury in a moral thermometer, but Nina doesn’t know who she’s dealing with. As she teases Bloom along with praise and encouragement for his early successes, we sense that she’s plumping the bait in a trap that will later snap down on her own neck. Ever the apt pupil, Bloom researches Nina’s work history and figures out the ways she is weak, then exploits her mercilessly not only for his own personal advancement, but for private enjoyment, as well. While Nina presents herself as an heartless velociraptor, by the end she’s as helpless as her name suggests— she’s a niña, a little girl.

While Bloom is tireless in his spade work, few films have such a well-studied, philosophical character at the center. Bloom is talkative, but his talk isn’t staked in fine books or classic novels, but internet articles and textbooks. At times, Bloom reasons and philosophizes like a young Carnegie or Rockefeller, though he never mentions them. He’s read a lot, but he hasn’t read anything good. Bloom is the kind of person who defends his arguments and beliefs with “Scientists say…” or “Researchers have found…”, though he’s also proven to be an horrific liar (the “37 gear” bike he tries to pawn, for instance). At the same time, he’s obsessive, and throws himself into his work with nothing-less than idolatrous zeal. Where his lies begin and end is difficult to say, both from the perspective of the audience and Bloom himself. He believes that everyone else in the world is a slacker, or looking for a handout, but his own strong work ethic grants him a higher knowledge such that he is justified in inventing facts on the spot. He seems to justify his lies thus: No one else has done the research to know what I’m saying isn’t true, so they get what they deserve.

The Hollywood pipeline has been, for years, stuffed full of stories about spies and techies who can blow up nuclear plants with a few mouse clicks or hack your toaster to burn an English muffin. Nightcrawler is about the dangers of the internet to the average joe. A thousand years ago, if a man was born a poor French Catholic onion farmer, he died a poor French Catholic onion farmer. When the city emerged in the 13th and 14th century as the new organizing social structure of the West, man became upwardly and downwardly mobile, but laterally mobile, as well. Today, a man born a poor French Catholic onion farmer might die a rich American atheist woman. The internet is not solely responsible for this, obviously, but it has eliminated most of the natural and common boundaries (time, proximity, expense, scarcity) which, for centuries, kept a certain kind of man with his kind. We live not only in the era of the nouveau riche but of the nouveau knowing, when anyone can— if they have only the desire— suddenly know just about all there is to know about practically anything, and do so without the risk of much lost. Knowledge is no longer entrusted to people who stand to lose a lot (money, social standing, prospects) if that knowledge is abused. While Bloom suffers a few bumps and scrapes in his rough entry into video news journalism, he undergoes no vetting process. It seems there is nowhere Bloom couldn’t go, nothing he couldn’t do, in a teeming, open, sprawling and ungoverned modern world. The absolute fluidity of this world goes to Bloom’s head, and he finds himself ever more brazen, ultimately viewing all boundaries— moral or physical— as arbitrary. This same modern world cleaves off the past and creates a vaporous present suspended on nothing, and so the lies Bloom tells to exonerate himself of wrongdoing seem (to Bloom, at least) within fair bounds. The only bounds are here and now.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

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