Re-writing Classical Hollywood:
Postmodern Apropriation 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”
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 called
“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
accident. 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 triumphs in, and profits from the misery of others.
The films' final car chase furthers this point, as it is seen largely through Rick's POV as
he experiences it through the lens of the camera. As Lou's Challenger screams 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
we also need to read this as a literal question. Rick has to ask if Lou sees what's going
on, because Lou doesn't have a camera. Lou is seeing with his eyes, watching the events
unfold in “reality”, unlike Rick, who's view of the action is mediated through the camera.
Lou's perspective is actually less “real” in our postmodern, image-based culture, which
often experiences the image before the real. 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
The classical Hollywood hero bests 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