It’s hard to make a film where your main man is a psychopath. Having to engage with a principal character that thinks, feels and acts in a way that is completely and utterly antithetical to you, mentally and emotionally, is what causes some of the most vociferous debate and lasting psychological disturbance amongst moviegoers. I’m not talking about your Travis Bickles or Tony Montanas either, as dysfunctional and destructive as those guys were, they still conveyed some semblance of pathos to the audience, mitigating their terrible ways with common empathetic worries and hopes, albeit through a severely malformed super-ego. I’m talking about those great white sharks of human beings, purely solipsistic, seeing everyone and everything around them as utilities to either be taken advantage of or indifferently discarded, their hunger and intolerance of obstacle being the only things they do not mimic. It’s even more disconcerting when that very same type of character is representative of a zeitgeist, holding up a mirror that an audience would rather smash in indignation, than face the fact the reflection doesn’t budge (even if it is in tiny pieces all over the floor).
Louis Bloom is an entrepreneurial fellow. Gaunt and hollow-eyed, he likely doesn’t have time for sleep, his mind perpetually buzzing with vigilant adrenaline, looking for the big opportunity that will ensure he never has to look for anything ever again. In his best performance to date, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou as the most amiable predator you could hope to meet (or rather pray that you never do), constantly reciting self-help mantras, his unholy self-belief leading him to think nothing of brutally assaulting a construction site guard, selling stolen material from said site to a scrapyard foreman whilst pitching him one of his many ‘unique business opportunities’. Lou can only grin and give an epiphanic finger wave when the foreman brusquely informs him that he’s ”not hiring a fucking thief”. As far as Lou is concerned, all setbacks are mere details.
Driving home one evening, he happens upon a car accident being attended to, not by paramedics, but photojournalists (known in the industry as ‘stringers’). Their leader, Joe (the late, great Bill Paxton) casually informs Lou that they make a killing selling this kind of stuff to local news stations, and our beloved scavenger’s brain-bulb flashes brightly. Buying himself a camcorder and police scanner, he and his Dodge Challenger set off into the night, getting meaty footage of fatal pile-ups, house fires, violent assaults, you name it. It’s all up close and personal, and with a man as disabused of scruples as Lou at the helm, it’s going to get a hell of a lot worse.
While it is a cynical and disturbing piece of work, it also manages to convey a brilliantly dark sense of humour. This year’s Joker has been lauded for its homages to several Scorcese pictures, especially Taxi Driver and King Of Comedy, but if the latter’s repulsive antihero, Rupert Pupkin, ever had a son, he wouldn’t have ended up as poor, damaged sweetheart Arthur Fleck, but as the rapacious nutjob at the centre of this very tale. Like Rupert, Lou is relentlessly smarmy, ever ready with bright eyes and an earnest smile, not so much engaging in conversation with everybody that he meets as he is giving a sales pitch. As his hapless assistant Rick (an amazing Riz Ahmed, poached by Lou in one of the most bizarre interview scenes you could come across), informs him, ”You just don’t understand people, man”, and he’s right, but it’s because he doesn’t need to. Lou does just fine as a lone wolf, anyone and everyone are merely platforms, you put your feet on one to get on top of the other. His conviction that he is effectively doing the right thing and keeping himself motivated makes it beyond terrifying.
Outside of his horrendous professional activities, the most disquieting thing about Lou is arguably his sexual politics. Nina Romina, Rene Russo’s no-nonsense news station president, has effectively seen it all, and isn’t about to begin playing doormat or passively negotiating with anybody, but she isn’t prepared for Lou in the slightest. His calculating ruthlessness and lack of the remotest slither of empathy slowly chip away at her assertiveness, and her being a woman puts her into a bottomless pit of unpleasant contingencies with our ghoulish loon.
One film that Nightcrawler has drawn comparisons to, and which also makes it utterly appropriate commentary on the shallow, cutthroat narcissism of our social media-saturated digital age, is Paddy Chayefsky & Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece Network. Like that movie, it also presents the news world as simultaneously alluring and utterly squalid, nobody caring about anything except projected earnings and the footage required for them. Lou Bloom is essentially the personification of what Network’s Howard Beale & Max Schumacher warned us about: the madness of it all. War, murder, death, all the same to him as bottles of beer. He is indifferent and insensitive to everything besides his individual ascension, moral parameters are actually unjust obstacles in his quest to become what he believes to be the best version of himself.
Whether you like it or not, this is the face of our age. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, if you want your voice out there in the ether, it’s done. This is obviously not a malignant thing, in and of itself, and it can certainly spread joy and inspiration, but for every normie, there’s also a creature of fuel, be it generically histrionic social media posts, garish vines, and yes, the darkest conceivable things for you to rubberneck, and it doesn’t get nonchalantly swiped past for the most part. Be it ostentatiously gawking at corpses in Japan’s notorious Suicide Forest, or firing a gun at your complicit boyfriend who is only holding up a book to protect himself, great swathes of people will do anything and everything for views, and are commended on their ‘panache’. If you had the balls, you’d put yourself out there like that as well, right? You’ve gotta be kidding with these reservations man, there’s precious time at stake.
So, give it up for Louis Bloom. Not because he’s admirable, far from it, but because he embodies the zenith of the narcissism epidemic, the next person isn’t actually a person, they are something for him to use up until he can throw it in the trash and move on. He takes no prisoners, accepts no compromise, wants nothing similar to what the average human being yearns for (love, acceptance, mutually gratifying and edifying experiences), and he couldn’t give a toss as to what you think about it. It’s good to have you around, sir.