Critiquing classical structures in Nightcrawler     

This movie fascinates me because it works on two very different levels. On one hand, there is the critique of contemporary media. The “Horror House” broadcast is the primary example, where the newscasters provide a running commentary of the aftermath of a grisly triple-murder over b-roll images of the victims lying in pools of their own blood. This scene is a carefully crafted critique of a) the spectator's fascination with violence (the pixelated blood functions in the exact opposite way it is intended; it draws our attention directly to it), b) the contemporary postmodern mindset that takes pleasure in the misery of others (after going to break, the director exclaims, “That's a ten share!”), and c) the lengths to which media outlets will construct and manipulate our desires for their own profit (the newscasters are continually reminded by the producer to repeat the words “graphic” and emphasize that the killers are still at large in the once “safe” neighborhood).

On the other hand, the film stages a critique of classical Hollywood cinema, and the popular Horatio Alger myth; the typical American “rags to riches” story where the protagonist works hard, pays his dues, and ultimately achieves the success of his dreams. Popular Hollywood films typically reinforce stories such as this (e.g., Rocky, The Pursuit of Happyness, October Sky, etc.), and we recognize this familiar structure in Nightcrawler. When we first meet our protagonist, Lou, we see he is a thief. He bungles an attempt to rob a construction site, and instead attacks a security guard and steals his watch. One evening he watches as a camera crew films a woman being pulled from an auto wreck, and is introduced to the world of freelance journalism. He purchases a camera and a police scanner, and sets out to become a stringer; on the hunt for violent content to sell to local TV stations. The major confrontation of the film revolves around Lou working at getting his graphic video footage into the news. He hires an intern named Rick, and builds a relationship with Nina, the news director at Channel 6. “I want to be the guy that owns the station…that owns the camera,” he tells her, and a montage sequence depicts him gathering and cataloging an assemblage of violent clips like “CARJACKING CRIME WAVE” and “RAMPAGE IN RESEDA”.

One of the key sequences in the film comes when Lou tampers with the scene of an auto crash. Arriving before the authorities, he drags a dead body that has been thrown from a car into a small pool of light so that he can better capture the carnage. Gazing down at the staged accident, the music swells to a crescendo (the same music that also plays when he later manipulates Rick into getting shot) and he throws his arms up above his head in a peculiar moment of triumph. He emerges here as a different kind of hero; the postmodern, fragmented hero who finds glory in, and profits from the misery of others. The climactic car chase furthers this point, as it is seen largely through Rick's POV while he watches through the lens of a video camera. As Lou's Challenger races through the busy LA streets, Rick continually shouts out “Did you see that?!” This is a common exclamation during moments of extreme violence, drama, excitement, and so forth, but it's also important that we read this as a literal question. Rick, immersed in hyperreality, has to ask if Lou sees what's going on because Lou doesn't have a camera. Lou is watching the events unfold in "reality", unlike Rick,

whose view of the action is mediated through the viewfinder. Lous says it best, when he says to Nina, "A proper frame not only draws the eye into a picture, but keeps it there longer, dissolving the barrier between the subject and the outside of the frame." Lou's perspective in this secene is actually less “real” in our postmodern, image-based culture, where one often has difficulty distinguishing reality from simulation. The penultimate scene of the film furthers this point as well, when Lou, seen through the POV of a security camera, looks directly into the lens and says, “I like to say if you see me, you're having the worst day of your life”. The classical Hollywood hero defeats the bad guy, saves the day, and lives happily ever. The ultimate postmodern capitalist, Lou is the bad guy who builds his business exploiting people on their worst day, and lives happily ever after profiting from the misfortune of others.

posted on 08/08/15 by apw