If Fight Club’s Tyler Durden is disgusted by modern consumerism, then Nightcrawler’s Louis “Lou” Bloom is infected by it. Bloom, portrayed by a slick-haired and sunken-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal, is introduced as a nocturnal loner who steals and sells scrap to get by. On his way home from a failed business deal, he happens upon an interstate accident. One car is engulfed in flame with a woman inside, and a crew of stringers—freelance photojournalists—surrounds the vehicle, trying to get a money shot. Bloom questions one of the crew about the job, and noting the financial potential, sets out to become a stringer on his own.
The opening moments of the film, pushed along by a melancholic guitar, are location shots of Los Angeles at night. A tattered billboard imposes itself in front of the moonlit desert. Buses slumber in parking lots. The lights of airplanes replace the stars. Later, we see cell phone towers, not trees, stretching into the night sky, and street shots often have ATMs in the background. Even in the sparser outskirts of the city, there is nowhere to look without spotting the encroachment of enterprise.
One of Nightcrawler’s most memorable shots is perhaps one of the most inconsequential. It captures the movements of tall, inflatable “airdancers” outside of a car dealership. You know what I’m talking about: the twenty-foot tube puppets that showed up everywhere over the last two decades, so obnoxious that they’re even banned in some places for creating visual clutter. As spastic and lifeless incarnations of American consumerism, the airdancers demand your gaze and draw you in to see whatever they’re trying to sell—not terribly unlike Gyllenhaal’s uncaring and manipulative Bloom. Never have advertising products, or Gyllenhaal, been so sinister.
When Bloom drives through the city and takes in these scenes, he sees opportunity. Behind every event and product, he sees a person who is making money out of it. He takes the competition of capitalism far too seriously, often to a fault. He mechanically spits out restaurant reviews when proposing a date, and he refuses to work for anybody but himself, even if it would be advantageous to join another company. When a night guard approaches him for trespassing, he sees not a man doing his job, but a wristwatch he can steal. Later, when he speaks to two news anchors, he doesn’t tell them that their jobs are important or entertaining. He says what they do is “incredibly valuable.” The money is all that matters. Freshly graduated from an online business program, Bloom can only see on the spectrum of potential production and consumption. It’s almost as if he is blind to humanity.
From the beginning of the film, it’s easy to identify that Bloom has questionable morals. But the more he is encouraged by the money he earns, and the more he is pushed by his clients demanding to see “something people can’t turn away from,” the more he feels obligated—and even encouraged—to cross boundaries. In order to produce better footage, he creates more dramatic situations. People become camera fodder and violence becomes money. “If it bleeds, it leads,” Bloom learns.
So whose fault is it when a man feels encouraged to facilitate violence and obstruct justice in order to make money? Does the blame fall on the man, or the people who demand footage of a “screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut”? Or does it fall on everyone, including you and me? Not that anyone should have fictional deaths weighing on their conscience; it’s just important to consider why a story like Bloom’s resonates with the real world. Events of similar malevolence happen all the time, and we pay to hear and see about them. Many of our fictions—Nightcrawler, Black Mirror, Mr. Robot, Fight Club, to name a few—are our dreams of enterprise and technology turned nightmares. We expect things to go wrong because they often do; so perhaps the fault lies not with people, but with this inevitability of chaos. Something will always go wrong, whether it’s a nuclear meltdown or a psychological one. And you never know which might lead to the other.