Nightcrawler [2014]

It’s taken me a little while to collate my thoughts on Nightcrawler. It was an impressive film, but disentangling how I felt about it has taken a little while and I generally find that whatever intellectual coating and mechanism I apply to a work, my response ultimately derives from emotion rather than rationality. What I’ve come to realise is that’s precisely the heart of the problems faced by the protagonist in this film. He is a man with deep emotional problems seeking for a mechanism to express his frustration and rage at the world and at himself. That conflict ultimately positions him between Travis Bickle and Patrick Bateman. Travis ultimately fails to find any coping mechanism, causing him to lash out at the most obvious targets for his rage. Travis positions his problems entirely externally – he perceives himself as a pure soul in a corrupt world. Patrick begins his psychotic journey by looking inwardly and finding nothing. He blames himself for his excesses, musing late in the film that his rages have begun to spill out of his nightworld fantasy and into the daylight, spectacularly failing to recognise that his problems are essentially systemic. The pop music that Patrick uses as his guide has no deep philosophy, and the brutal corporate world his daytime self inhabits reflects his own excesses on an industrial scale, so that the police cannot even identify or empathise with his victims. Spoilers after the jump.

Louis Bloom is a psychopath, like Bickle, like Bateman. Like Taxi Driver [1976] and American Psycho [2000], there is nobody in this film to cheer for and no sense that the global environment leading to their psychosis can be ameliorated in any significant way. There are no likeable characters, only pitiful ones. Nor are these films Tragedies in the Aristotelian sense, since  the characters in these films are ultimately exonerated – unless you interpret Bickle’s post-rampage scenes as a dying fantasy, as suggested by Steve. Bloom, going beyond mere survival, even leverages his crimes into profit. Nor are these morally complex characters, whose ambivalence is fascinating. What makes us interested in these characters? What compels us to watch their crimes and the horror they create?

I think that we like to view these dramas as a form of deeper social commentary, as if their bleakness were somehow more real than the happier vision of more mainstream drama. The New York of Bickle seems much more real than the nostalgic vision in Annie Hall [1977], and seems to have a deeper meaning. We feel like we should care more about child prostitutes and traumatised veterans than about a narcissist and a socialite. Both are fantasies, of course, and speaking for myself I have a lot more in common with Singer than Bickle; if art is a reflection of life, Taxi Driver is the inferior film.

Whether the grim world of Tax Driver existed or not, it is a film that offers no solutions for the problems it poses. There is no root cause suggested for the stratum of filth in which Bickle finds himself. Things simply are as they are. Bickle’s rampage, however well directed, cannot surgically remove the cancer since it attacks just one isolated site. Ameian Psycho, whose protagonist is far more extreme than Bickle, does have a systemic target. The corporate world of Bateman replaces people with cogs in a machine so that the police cannot even positively identify his most prominent victim and abandon their investigation. Or did Bateman himself kill the wrong man? Bateman’s world has similarly totally succumbed to its evils, and the film thus can gesture toward an underlying cause while simultaneously being no more able to propose a solution.

This incompleteness, this futility, creates an ambivalence in the audience. Ambivalence is always interesting because it allows audience interpretation and thus engagement. The films above provide only questions – Nightcrawler proposes an answer and it’s the one that I think we all secretly fear is embedded in the other dramas. The problem is us.

Louis Bloom finds himself in the ame kind ofdark cesspool of a word asBickle, beset by th same macro-social forces as Bateman, but instead of powerless rage, Bloom develops a true symbiosis with the systemic problems of his society. His vices ar no longer private, but explicitly public. His voyeuristic interest in pain and suffering is rewarded by the system, propelled by public interest. He videotapes atrocities and is rewarded with money and power within his limited scope. His crimes are far less extreme than Bickles or Bateman’s, but the crucial difference is that they are fully mediated. Bateman videotapes his crimes looking for a sense of reality beneath the surface. His monologues express the notion that he exists only as a physical being, and his analyses of popular music reflect that basic posture. Bloom instead uses media and perception to force the exterior world to be reconfigured into his fantasy. When he stands in front of the studio backdrop he says that it looks real – at that moment he realises that perception is total.

Bloom, like Bickle and Bateman, intensively discusses himself and his world-view. In his first approach looking for a job he has a spiel about how he is a hard worker and how if you want to win the lottery you must earn the money for a ticket. He fails to get the job because his would-be employer recognises the underlying reality. His second interview goes much better because the TV news system is geared toward rewarding just such distortions. Once he has begun that cycle, he pushes it to the maximum extent, reveling in his ability to use perception to alter reality. It is a struggle to re-write reality which his producer ultimately loses, becoming his principal victim. She at first dictates terms, but ultimately ends up merely his sexual fantasy.

As an attack on media culture, this is incisive. It’s main problem as a film is that despite compelling performances from all the principal cast, it doesn’t leave the audience with much to do. We can mull over the decisions that Romina makes, tragically leading her from powerful to submissive, and we can question Rick’s naivety, but the film offers explicit explanations for those whose face value is fairly convincing. No explanation is offered for Bloom’s own amorality – but he is so clearly an avatar for the message of systemic debasement that it’s hard to find interest to dig deeper. For all that there are solid expository body-blows delivered to the ediface of journalism, in the absence of a deeper or broader perspective on the problems these come across as ultimately glib: of course the eponymous Nightcrawling is repulsive, of course the media who pander to it are failing in their moral duty, of course those who service and mediate the exploitation of suffering are dangerously poised above slippery slopes. So what? None of these things is difficult or controversial.

Nighcrawler is an accomplished piece of cinematic art, and its basic message is a good one. It fails to achieve greatness because it does not trust its audience to look in the direction it points, insisting at each turn in a lengthy explanation of events and the reasons for them. It is never content to show, but must tell as well. Bateman and Bickle offer explanations that are simply more fuel for the ambiguity of the stories the inhabit, Bloom renders his own story as a perfectly self-contained thesis that won’t sustain interest.

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