SPOILER WARNING: Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Such was the sentiment stated in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962) in regards to how the news handles the “facts” of what is happening in the world. Creating false narratives based on true stories was not new at the time of the aforementioned 1962 western, but the handling of the subject matter seems to argue that this was a practice more common in relation to the overly romanticized Old West than the rest of the world at large. After all, the full quote is “No sir, this is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” However, Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014) argues that not only is the practice of creating false narratives exclusive to the Old West, but also that it is alive and well in modern culture and media today. And while neither or these claims are really surprising given the current state of the news media, what is truly unique about Nightcrawler is its ability to give a face, and a menacing one at that, to the force that seeks not only to print the legend, but to create it as well.
This face comes in the form of Louis Bloom. He is established first by not only his willingness to steal and sell precious metals, but also by the raw greed and brutality necessary to assault and steal the watch of the security guard that tries to stop him. These traits are not serving Louis to their full potential in the form of simple theft though, and he knows this. Where these traits are perfectly at home are in the world of the news, or rather, what the news calls the news. Louis enters the world of nightcrawling not only because it pays well, but also because in it he senses power. In the end, power and respect are what Louis wants most and he believes, rightly so, that he can obtain these by way of his new source of income.
Of all of his traits, whether it is his brutality or his uncompromising nature, perhaps the most dangerous trait that Louis possesses is how quickly he learns. Blood sells, violence sells, but what sells the most is that notion that no matter who you may be or where you live, you can fall victim to happenings that you have always been told only happen to people worse off than you. But these narratives are not completely, or even at all true, and Louis knows this. But narratives can be created, and this is exactly what Louis eventually graduates to doing. What soon becomes apparent is that Louis, someone who will allow his associates to be murdered just because they dared to make a power play on him, is at his least dangerous when he is behind the camera. It is what Louis does before he starts filming that defines what he is. And as Nightcrawler is sure to show, Louis is worse than even those that eagerly buy what he is selling.
In the beginning, Louis does not edit anything that he films. As the first interaction between Louis and Nina Romina, the overnight news director shows, Louis so unpolished that he does not even edit out his own camera tests. As he awkwardly directs the fast-forwarding of his video, it seems that even Louis does not know what he is doing. But, as mentioned, he is a fast learner, and before long it is not Nina, or anyone else, that is dictating how the events in Louis’ videos are portrayed. This credit soon goes to Louis himself. By moving from simply filming and presenting the events as they happened, albeit with an air of sensationalism, to editing them before they are ever even put up for sale, Louis makes his first real power play. Louis is now playing everyone to one degree or another. Throughout the film, he seeks to obtain total control over every aspect of his life, and by editing the events that he is selling he is able to obtain just that over even the real world. Louis not only edits the clips that he has filmed, but also the events before they are ever filmed. Not only is he willing to drag a body to create a perfect framing at a car accident, but he even goes so far as to sabotage the vehicle of one of his nightcrawling rivals. The latter incident has other motivations as well, but it still speaks to the uncompromising nature of Louis. There is nothing that Louis will cede control over, and the fact that others exist who would vie for this control only make them removable obstacles for him.
But what truly makes Louis so terrifying is how he perceives the world, and why he does so. Even though he creates the media that is consumed by the masses, Louis is a product of that same media himself. Louis describes himself as someone who learns a lot by way of the internet, and the film backs this up as the audience is shown where Louis lives. Sitting in his dark apartment, only three things are lit in the room: Louis, his television set, and his computer. In the end, despite his proficiency for manipulating the news and the people who make the news, Louis is just a product of that same media. Despite his extensive knowledge of seemingly everything gained from his time on the Internet, Louis still does not understand people. Or perhaps, and more frighteningly, maybe Louis understands people all too well but he chooses not to like them. The latter is definitely the case by the end of the film. Louis may be awkward and plainly unreal around anyone and everyone, but in the end he understands them all perfectly, even if they don’t understand him. Louis always gets what he wants after all, and part of the reason he is able to do so is because of his understanding of what makes people tick.
Understanding does not equal empathy for Louis though, as his frightening restaurant interaction with Nina proves. Those that serve Louis’ goals have little to worry about from him, but those that do not can and will be removed. Like everything else with Louis, he graduates from one transgression to another, and his threats are no different. Louis threatens Nina’s job, but an even greater extreme is reached in how Louis handles his employee, Rick. In Rick, Nightcrawler demonstrates another caustic effect of Louis. First entering the film as a practically homeless and desperate man, Rick’s time with Louis transforms him into a much more powerful force to be reckoned with. Though he never reaches anywhere near the level of Louis, Rick begins to exhibit many of the more problematic traits of his employer. And though he still has a good amount of empathy, even the slightest hint of a threat to his absolute control turns Rick into another obstacle for Louis. In the end, Louis murders Rick in every way but by pulling the trigger himself. This too is filmed by Louis, as are all of the other atrocities that he witnesses and commits, and it highlights the way that Louis perceives his world.
To Louis, the entire world can be seen through his lens, and this is how he would prefer to do so. Through the lens, the world can be altered. Things that never happened can be said to happen, connections that do not exist can be established, and everything can and will bend to the one that holds the camera. Louis holds the camera, throughout the film and through the end of it, and his ruthless nature means that there is nothing that he cannot create or accomplish by way of what he films and presents. But even though the film does not say much of it, Louis’ particular view of the world is a symptom of how he learns about the same world. Sitting before a computer screen, Louis has the world at his fingertips, and even he admits that this is now he has often seen and learned about the world. His media saturation has numbed him to a degree, symbolically represented in the film by Louis laughing at film playing on his television when the knight is decapitated. For most, this would not translate to an adept handling of the real world and the people that inhabit it, but for Louis everything works out as his ruthlessness serves him well. Push enough buttons and eventually one will work, and Louis proves this to be the same with each person that he encounters. All of this is at the cost of those around him, and Louis feels none of the blowback from any of his irresponsible actions. Even when facing down a very determined and also very correct police detective that is accusing him of murder, he does not flinch. As with everything else, Louis has already chosen how others will perceive the events that occur. After all, he is the one that is holding the camera.