“Nightcrawler,” Dan Gilroy’s funny, deeply unsettling movie about Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a seedy, marginal resident of Los Angeles who finds his niche filming bloody crime scenes and selling the footage to local news stations, has often been described as a moral commentary on the media.
Certainly, Lou is a chilling person who feeds our most repulsive instincts. Nina (Rene Russo), the news director at a struggling station who becomes Lou’s most important customer, tells him that that he should “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut,” a line that has been repeated in almost every review of “Nightcrawler.” But her blunter advice is even more distressing because of how deeply it cuts. Nina tells Lou that he should look for “A victim, well off, usually white, injured at the hands of a minority.” Later, Lou will snap at Rick (an excellent Riz Ahmed), his first employee, “We want victims and not the kind who live on Sixth and Rampart.”
But this ugly mathematics of who matters and who does not, what we are entitled to see of the worst moments in other people’s lives and what they are permitted to conceal from us, is part of a much larger formula Gilroy is working out in “Nightcrawler.” Comparing “Nightcrawler” to “Network” or Lou to Travis Bickle does not quite make sense: the movie is not really just about the news business, and Lou is not a delusional loser. Instead, he is a perfect example of what entitlement looks like, and the ways in which it can act as a superpower.
If Lou is mistaken for a “Taxi Driver” analogue, it is because we do not have a better reference point to explain him. In the past, privileged men in the movies looked like Linus Larrabee, the dour tycoon played by Humphrey Bogart and Harrison Ford in the “Sabrina” movies, or the bratty children of great advantage. Lou is not wealthy. He lives in an apartment that is modest by pop culture standards and drives a crappy car. When he becomes modestly successful, Lou splurges on a flashy red sports car, the sort of toy that reveals rather than conceals the class its owner grew up in.
But Lou is entitled nonetheless, a product of “the self-esteem movement so popular in schools” for whom the idea that he might fail or be refused is so alien that he is effectively rendered impervious to setback.
At the beginning of the movie, Lou’s tendency to dress up petty criminality in the language of business is very funny. “That’s below market value!” Lou protests when he is unhappy with the price he is offered on a load of stolen copper piping. When he is pawning a bike he stole, hoping to exchange it for a camera and police scanner that would let him get into crime scene videography, Lou lies casually to the pawn shop owner to drive up its value, telling the man “This is a custom racing bicycle . . . I won the Tour de Mexico on this bike.”
The expectations that you deserve a certain amount of money for stolen goods, or that you can tell falsehoods boldly without being challenged, may not be as visible manifestations of privilege as an estate on Long Island, but they are still a kind of privilege.
And Lou becomes a lot less funny as he gets more successful. Learning that he needs someone else to navigate while he drives and to shoot footage from a second angle, Lou hires Rick. “What does it pay?” Rick wants to know. “It’s an internship,” Lou tells Rick with the confidence of a corporate tycoon sure he can get labor for nothing, even though his “organization” is a fiction. “I’m giving you an opportunity to explore career options, see how my organization works. It’s not unusual for me to make full-time offers to my interns.”
As Nina comes to rely more on his footage, Lou exploits her desperation to rise in the ratings to demand that she begin dating him if she wants first crack at his footage. “I have to think you’re invested in this transaction,” Lou tells Nina coolly. He has analyzed the situation and knows that Nina has no other option than to indulge him. And he feels no qualms over it.
Ultimately, Lou progresses to not just filming crime scenes, but to staging them, sabotaging cars, moving bodies and calling the cops only when criminals he is tailing reach neighborhoods affluent enough for the violence that happens there to be of interest to Nina. Lou may be a marginal figure whose vision of success is a small business rather than an empire. But his sense that he has the perfect right to interfere in and even dispose of other people’s lives for his own advancement is far more dangerous than older visions of privilege and entitlement.
“What if my problem was not that I don’t understand people, but that I don’t like them?” Lou muses towards the end of “Nightcrawler.” The ultimate expression of entitlement and privilege is recognizing that you do not like people, and not having to pretend that you do in order to get along or get ahead.