The New American Nightmare in Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” – An Essay / Review

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Director: Dan Gilroy
Screenwriter: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton, Ann Cusack & Kevin Rahm
Runtime: 117 min // Certificate: 15

“If you want to win the lottery, you’ve gotta make the money to buy a ticket”

Within the first few minutes of Nightcrawler, the squalid subversion of the ideals of the American Dream that contemporary capitalism has come to represent are plain for all to see. Lou (Gyllenhaal; Brokeback Mountain) steals to make a living, and then asks for a job from the man he’s selling to. The “self-made man” is now a thief, scurrying through the polluted, stinking streets of LA in search of a fortune that he believes he is entitled to. If you want to win the lottery, you have to earn the money to buy a ticket – victory, in Lou’s eyes, is assured. It’s a guarantee. All he’s got to do to succeed is make enough money.

Of course, “the lottery” in this respect isn’t an actual “lottery”, but a metaphor for success. For Lou, success means wealth, fame and recognition at all costs. A man with no obvious personality or identity, Lou decides that the best way for him to achieve this anodyne goal is to become a “nightcrawler” – someone who monitors police radios and films the after effects of crimes or accidents so they can sell the footage to the morning news. Initially an amateur, Lou quickly grows into his new job. He hires an intern (why pay when you can offer “opportunities for career advancement”?), gets better equipment and hunts out darker and more graphic images to sell to a station in desperate want of the next big story.

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At face value then, Nightcrawler is a scathing critique of the 24-hour news media; in particular, the news media’s obsession with violence. The film begins misleadingly light, sporadically poking fun at the vicious cycle of sensationalism and audience engagement that defines the modern media. We sit at home, staring at our televisions, our computers and our iPads, waiting for something to happen. Our lives are so mundane and unfulfilled that we need something shocking to jolt us into feeling emotion. We’re horrified by what we see on the screen – the death, the violence and the endless misery – yet every day we come crawling back, looking for our next fix. When the violence and the graphic imagery start to fade, so too do the ratings. We falsely claim that we want “the news to tell us the news” but we don’t. We want drama, bloodshed and something hard to stomach but easy to understand, so we can talk about how horrific it all is at work the next day. Thus the pitiful cycle continues.

In effect, we love fear. Again, we might act as though we don’t, but nothing – other than, perhaps, the pursuit of money – motivates people more than fear in the era of new capitalism. If someone tells us that immigrants are flooding through the borders to turn us all into homosexual, Muslim women, it gives us an excuse to air our hidden prejudices more openly. Fear enables us to say “I’m not racist, but… I’m just scared, y’know? It was on the news…” When the tabloid media tell us that crime rates are soaring, even though the official figures tell us the opposite, we say things like “well, you can prove anything with facts” and scurry back into our fetid little comfort zones, awaiting our next mind-numbing instruction from the news. If a politician tells us that crime rates have never been lower, we scoff. What about that poor white girl who got shot last week? If crime rates are falling, who killed her then, eh? Some immigrant probably…

Gilroy recognises, as we all do, what the poisonous combination of unfettered capitalism and an unrestrained media has produced. His film is littered with allusions, some subtle and some actively and pointedly critical of the very audience watching the film, to the contemptible state of modern America. The “Dream” that everyone would have the opportunity to succeed provided they conformed to the basic, patriarchal, heteronormative rules of society, has become so perverted that the only people who can succeed are the ones who manipulate and pervert those rules to suit their own agenda. By this I don’t mean that “equality has gone too far”, as the conservative right likes to tell you, but that the opposite has happened. The Dream is still aimed at white, middle-class, heterosexual men, as it always has been and always will be, but no longer are those who are honest, selfless and hard-working even given a look in. Capitalism has morphed into corporatism, and citizens have been turned from democratic participants into passive consumers. In modern America, everything and anything can be bought and sold, provided you’re willing to fuck everyone else over in the process.

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Lou is the epitome of this wretched ideal. A gaunt, haunting, ghostly figure of a man, Lou looks other-worldly, as though he isn’t quite human. The emotions that define humanity – love, compassion, anger, fear – have been scooped out, replaced instead by something altogether more pernicious. Lou isn’t interested in anything but success. His sole purpose is to achieve the Dream at whatever cost. He speaks in jargon, referring to his one-man business as a “company” and talking with all the charisma of an advertiser giving a sales pitch. That this personality puts him in good stead with Nina (Russo; Thor), the morning news director of a small, local station, is telling in itself. She isn’t interested in him as a person inasmuch as she’s interested in what he can do for her and her company. The ethos – the “values” and “beliefs” of a faceless, monstrous organisation – takes precedence over everything else. Capitalism – once (wrongly, in my view) hailed as the paragon of ingenuity and human creativity – is now the great dehumaniser.

It isn’t just Lou who is dehumanised by capitalism-cum-corporatism however. Nina, whose sole aim in life is to hold onto her middle-management position at whatever cost necessary, is interested in nothing but violent imagery. The stories behind the images, not to mention the people in them, are irrelevant. Blur the face and move on. Make sure they’re white, because that allows the audience to empathise with them without actually caring about them, make sure they’re rich and make sure they could be someone you know. Nina and, by proxy, the audience who watch the news she produces, are dehumanised to such an extent that death is just another commodity to be edited, packaged, sold and consumed.

The most pertinent example of this comes quite early on. Lou and his assistant, Rick (Ahmed; Four Lions) spend an entire day sitting around, listening to the police radio, waiting for a worthwhile crime to occur. Reports are radioed in, yet none of them are juicy enough to sell to an audience that loves, wants and demands drama. Then, towards the end of the night, something “good” happens. Lou rushes to the scene, gets a decent shot and sells the package on. The next morning, the news media report a “carjacking crime wave”. Nothing of the sort exists, of course, but that’s what the audience wants to hear. The news as an entity, in all its wisdom, creates the story from nothing. Real-life tragedies are packaged and sold to an audience who are disconnected from the victims, day-in, day-out, to create the illusion of a city on the verge of civil war and anarchy. Sex sells, as they say, and so too does violence, fear and hatred.

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To Gilroy then, LA is a dystopia. He utilises wide shots of the vast, glossy façade of the city to great effect, but his real interest is in the fetid, polluted stench that bubbles away underneath the surface. He burrows in deep, beneath the dark underbelly of a glistening, bustling veneer, to reveal a city, a country and a society in terminal meltdown. We are repulsed by what we see, yet we recognise how accurate and commonplace it is. The use of dry humour here is particularly effective, as it gets us laughing, even though the laughter is uncomfortable and awkward. Lou, a hateful figure, is the medium through which we can explore this miserable World from a distance, yet deep down we know that it isn’t confined to the boundaries of the film; it’s all around us, in our everyday lives, and that’s what makes it so chilling.

In a World in which everything is up for grabs and nothing is sacred, the American Dream metamorphoses into a corporate nightmare. Lou is so consumed by the Dream that it deprives him of his basic humanity. Love, sex and companionship – the fundamental cornerstones of what makes us human – are materials to be traded in the same way that the footage of a crime scene is nothing but a film to be consumed and enjoyed. The Dream is now a sham; an archaic, anachronistic concept that has no place in 21st Century America. The fanciful notion that anyone can succeed is a cruel and twisted joke at the expense of the poor, ethnic minorities and those who still possess some semblance of humanity. America doesn’t want to see dead black kids on the news, because they probably had it coming to them. America wants to see, as Nina straight-facedly puts it, “a screaming woman, running down the street, with her throat cut”. Gilroy understands that. He criticises it, he shames his audience and he points the blame in all manner of directions. The cause is clear though; this is the free-market run amok, and no-one is safe anymore.

Nightcrawler is a modern masterpiece. It combines the insightful comedy of a film like Network with the visual aesthetic of Refn’s Drive to shine a light into a miserable facet of modern life that we can all see but choose to ignore. It boasts the finest performance of Gyllenhaal’s career, two powerful supporting performances from Russo and Ahmed, and an ending so disturbing that it feels like it’s been lifted straight from a horror film. If you only see one more film this year, make sure you catch Nightcrawler.