If It Bleeds, It Leads

by: Douglas Grant with Michael Shields

Dan Gilroy’s thriller, Nightcrawler, unleashes one of the most unforgettable characters to ever inhabit the big screen….

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Louis Bloom is a scavenger and a swindler who scours L.A.’s murky nightscape in search of anything of material value. To those who pay him for the fruits of his nightly transgressions he attempts to sell himself as a legitimate asset to their enterprises. But who wants to hire a known thief? In short, Lou is a very driven bottom feeder. In this sense he is a paradoxical character. He is uneducated, yet self-taught by the internet. He wants love and companionship, but is utterly lacking in human empathy. He craves acclaim for his work, but he is hopelessly misanthropic. Despite all of these contrasts, he ultimately achieves success by accidentally discovering a prospective career that is a perfect match for his skill set. Soon after immersing himself in it he finds that he has the ability to flourish at it.

Lou is a nightcrawler, a freelance videographer who lives by the motto, “If it bleeds, it leads.” The graphically disturbing images that are commonplace on the mean streets of L.A. become his trade. The camera lens, his calling in life. The role of director is a career he rapidly discovers he is quite cut out for. From the very start, we, the audience, come to grasp Lou’s keen understanding of what is really the driving force behind contemporary journalism. He has a tendency toward letting loose with recitations of self-help platitudes that he obviously picked up on the web, business model type speeches that are so trite they actually lend of layer of comedy to his character. But don’t be fooled; even after quickly sensing that, we quickly realize that Lou is always two steps ahead of the very media personnel who have been playing the game for a lot longer than he has. Lou’s knack for seeing the bigger picture is what keeps him in a constant power struggle with his immediate boss and the nightly newscast she represents. Because Lou is such an acute learner he eventually realizes that he has it within his power to change the game being played. Why let stories lead you when you can lead the stories yourself? It is at this juncture in the story that we start to see that the mere scumbag actually has many of the qualities of a sociopath.

One of the few issues I take with Lou’s character development is the gaping divide between where he is at the beginning of the film versus where we find him at the end. His social skills are essentially non-existent, but we can’t afford to undermine his cunning if we are to truly appreciate what he represents. This is what I found to be a tough sell by the film’s director, Dan Gilroy: At the beginning of the story he is society’s lowest common denominator, yet when we come to know and respect his intelligence we realize that all along he should have been applying himself to a vocation that is both more lucrative and more respected.

There is no doubt that Lou is the perfect example of an anti-hero, and his story arc in no way adheres to our traditional concept of the model. So why does he have our sympathies, or does he even have our sympathies? We know we can’t look away as he is hungrily filming a mangled corpse on the side of the road, but if Lou disgusts us so much then why does he also fascinate us? It eventually becomes a chicken and egg type question. Is Lou a product of his environment, or has he bent that environment to become a product of his will? Is his character, in fact, a sign of the times we live in?

The true freaks stick with us, in life and in film. They linger in our consciousness, stirring about as we ponder their quirks, their beady eyes, their obscure motives and nervous ticks. Once beheld, who among us could forget Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, Jack Nicholson’s menacing Jack Torrance, or Steve Buscemi in, well, everything? How long after exiting the movie theater did it take for you to shake off The Joker’s ominous lip-smacking as brought to bone-chilling life by Heath Ledger? And joining these curious oddities, we find one Louis Bloom, truly a monster for our time, played with shocking brilliance by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Jake Gyllenhaal, once on a path towards mainstream action stardom, has shrewdly made an about face. In a slew of intriguing and nuanced performances (Zodiac, Prisoners, Enemy), Gyllenhaal has exhibited the sort of range, and skill, that display what he as an actor is truly capable of. For his role as the sociopathic loner Louis Bloom, Gyllenhaal lost thirty pounds transforming himself profoundly. His unblinking eyes are sunk deep within their sockets and rage with fever and aggression. His cheekbones menacingly bulge, while his hair is swept compulsory to the side, both perfectly maintained and unhinged. Gyllenhaal’s meticulous and creepy performance in Nightcrawler is arguably the best of his career, highlighting an ability to tune into a bevy of emotions and eccentricities of the human condition that I hadn’t thought him capable.

Nightcrawler acts as an examination of the broken media system and our nation’s bloodlust, while challenging our perceptions of likability and justifiable conduct. But above all, it acts as a true character study of a man who, in fact, embodies the term sociopath. Lou is a classic case: the pathological lying, the inability to love, the superficial charm, the manipulation, the callous lack of empathy and utter lack of guilt or remorse, the erratic and often juvenile behavior and, most predominantly, the grandiose sense of self. Like any unabating sociopath, Lou does not see those around him as people, but rather as targets and opportunities, pawns in his self-indulgent game. For Lou the ends will always justify the means, and the blood and pain left in his wake are no consequence to him whatsoever. Lou is the manifestation of the narcissism that underscores so much of today’s society, imploding with the systematic and relentless pursuit of one’s advantage. And in this way Gyllenhaal’s performance is not merely masterful, but important. While Nightcrawler is fascinating on many levels, Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance of the unforgettable Louis Bloom makes it an absolute must-see.

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