NOTE: Aspects of the film Nightcrawler will be discussed here. Spoilers inevitably follow.
Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir flick, Nightcrawler has been referred to as a spiritual successor to Network, which isn’t an unreasonable comparison. The allure of the screen is perhaps more profound now than it has ever been, with more modes for entering the vast planes of cyberspace becoming available by the year. As Network’s Howard Beale notably proclaims, “the only truth you know is what you get over this tube”, and for all Nightcrawler’s dark quips and slants at corporate diplomacy, there lurks a similar anxiety over the ease with which a population’s personal reality can be contained, and as to what exactly that could mean.
Nightcrawler circumnavigates the exploits of Lou Bloom who, upon introduction, is out of work and desperate to make ends meet. He steals from scrapyards and pawns purloined bicycles with the sort of winning smile you might find slapped across an introductory business pamphlet, but soon becomes enveloped in the ambiguous underground of freelance crime journalism after witnessing a burning car wreckage being recorded on the highway. These petty traits will serve Bloom well.
As police officers drag the injured from the flames, Lou hastens to ask one of the freelance reporters – Joe Loder – if the footage will be shown on TV, to which he replies with the crudely catchy, “if it bleeds, it leads”.
It is, incidentally, this line that embodies Lou’s cut-throat mindset throughout the rest of the film, serving as the integral mantra that will drive Bloom’s blackmail of peers, manipulation of crime scenes and ultimate creation of the crime he sets out to capture and sell for local news segments.
Nightcrawler mostly opts for a brash, in-your-face attitude towards its characters, but there are instances that allow for interpretation, mostly within the objects Bloom chooses to operate. After hooking a fee with the forewoman of a collapsing news station – Nina Romina – he switches out his battered Toyota for a sparkling Dodge Challenger.
The phrase, “blood on one’s hands” comes to mind when considering the car; a phrase the Dodge seems to satirically exaggerate. The seductive red hue of the car appears luminant against the neon background of nighttime L.A; an abtract projection of the amoral blood coursing through the fabricated veins of the News world; the mere ‘fuel’ in a much larger, grotesque organism.
This insinuates a darker undertone beneath the already blackened humour, by allowing some degree of innocence to permeate Bloom’s predatorial mindset across the film. After breaking into homes and capturing voyeuristic footage of various hostile aftermaths to sell, Bloom’s efforts are reinforced by Nina, as the footage is nip n’ tucked to allign with her own company hallmark, “think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”
This is especially ominous as it doesn’t just allude to the malleability of human perception via the media, but potentially frames Lou Bloom as a product of his surroundings. Maybe he’s a bad guy. But so is everyone else.
It’s a concept that elicits memories of the Oppenheimer documentary The Act of Killing. Here, perpetrators of the 1960’s Indonesian genocides are captured reenacting their crimes in the style of their favourite films. The film attracted a notoriety (even being termed a ‘snuff film’ by BBC broadcaster Nick Fraser) for apparent lack of information and insinuation of cruel acts.
But amidst the grinning surreality of the perpetrators’ disquieting play, it is the indubitably present humanity within the focal war chief, Anwar Congo, that irradiates the true horror. Charming sequences of Congo playing with his grandchildren are in as abundant a supply as his jovial accounts of his murder techniques, and both interweave with a notably comparitive intent.
The Act of Killing‘s conveyances evoke the Nazist alternate reality Philip K. Dick envisioned in The Man in the High Castle, the brutes hailed as war heroes; the victims shruggishly dehumanised, often inviting the viewer to question how much perception of one’s actions can be dominated by a society, and how subjective notions of morality, and reality, really are.
And because they’re subjective; malleable, anyone could commit those atrocities, amongst certain surroundings. That’s a very unsettling thought, to say the least.
Nightcrawler reflects a similar concern, instead against the neo-noir backdrop of Western L.A. Another prime difference is that the platform for moral discussion surfaces more within the off-screen possibility, than the depicted ‘protagonist’. As we observe Bloom dragging lifeless bodies to frame his destructive shots; deliberately witholding information from the authorities in order to orchestrate a juicier story, there is all the while a persistent speculation as to how all this must appear to the everyday audiences that tune in to news stations to (as Lou once claims) “stay informed”.
We perceive in Nightcrawler a manmade reality; something that reacknowledges its inspiration by Network, and something that bears perhaps a stronger significance now more than ever.With ‘leaked footages’ surfacing every so often online – with little certification of authenticity – perhaps the portrayal of an ‘absolute reality’ on-screen is becoming more and more problematic. If this is so, considering the unremitting pull of the ubiquitous ‘tube’ today, how much of our understanding of the world is real, how much of it synthesised? And is one of those necessarily better than the other?